Glimmers of secular hope


There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate).

This is not an issue of mere semantics or hurt feelings. If Islam is, indeed, a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine, then we must propose (as some, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, do) a radical and innovative method of mitigating the harm that involves the destruction of Islam as a religion. The harm is irretrievably baked into the cake, if this particular interpretation of events is to be believed. Personally, I think that this is a mindset borne of panic and colonialist attitudes about “the West” vs. “the Islamic world”. If Islam is just a run-of-the-mill example of what happens when religious authority is given militarily and political strength (as the experts suggest), then the way we approach it is the same way that we approached Christianity – strengthening secular institutions and providing more opportunity for people to develop, personally and economically, outside of a theocratic system.

In support of this latter interpretation, I offer two stories that seem to provide some hope that such a thing is not only possible, but happening:

Bangladeshi Prime Minister rules out blasphemy law

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina has firmly rejected demands by Islamists for a new anti-blasphemy law to punish those who defame Islam and Prophet Muhammad. In a BBC interview, she said existing laws were sufficient to punish anyone who attempted to insult religion. Her comments came just days after hundreds of thousands of supporters of an umbrella organisation of Islamists held a massive rally in Dhaka.

“This country is a secular democracy. So each and every religion has the right to practice their religion freely and fair. But it is not fair to hurt anybody’s religious feeling. Always we try to protect every religious sentiment.”

To be sure, the idea that “religious sentiment” is something that deserves the protection of law is not exactly an encouraging sign, but the fact that a Muslim Prime Minister is willing to stand up to radical theocratic forces in her own country suggests that there is a strong pro-secular movement at work in Balgandesh.

Egypt court rejects bid to ban Bassem Youssef TV show

A court in Egypt has rejected a lawsuit calling for a ban on the TV programme of popular satirist Bassem Youssef. The court said the Muslim Brotherhood lawyer who filed the suit, which also demanded the channel lose its licence, did not have an interest in the case.

Mr Youssef has been questioned over allegations of insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam, raising concerns about freedom of speech. His weekly show went out again on Friday, poking fun at his situation.

Again, this is the court rejecting the lawsuit on a jurisdictional basis rather than saying the case itself has no standing, but there is some encouragement, I think, to be found in the existence of an independent judiciary that makes its decisions based on law rather than religious edicts.

Finally, there is a tactical issue that is worth exploring in the conversation about the atheist response to Islam. There are pro-secular Muslims who are putting themselves at bodily risk by speaking out about the need to fight Islamism in their countries. If we wish, as a community, to advance the cause of secularism where it is perhaps most sorely needed, we need to find a way to discuss Islam without invoking the spectre of Terry Jones. To be sure, there will be people who view all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic, and there is little that can be done to reach across that gulf, but there can be no partnership between the atheist pro-secular community and the non-atheist pro-secular community if we cannot learn to parse the more bigoted, less fact-based criticisms of Islam.

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*I link to the Greenwald piece because the other two I have read are so full of bad arguments and red herrings as to sink the central argument under the weight of the incompetence of the writers. Greenwald’s is thorough and specifically refutes the counter-argument that Harris is simply criticising religion and not Muslims themselves.

Comments

  1. CaitieCat says

    Yes, this is one of those areas where movement atheism lets me down, because there tends to be a lot of splash damage on ordinary Muslims* when taking reasonable shots at Islam. And so we end up with these pictures of “Muslims do X”, where X is often some objectively awful behaviour which is usually equally objectively not something the majority are doing.. The conflation of all Muslims into a monolithic “Muslims do X” simply says to me, as someone who knows quite a lot of Muslims here in Canada, devout people, and who finds them to be pleasant, respectful, respectable, hard-working, and scrupulously honest**, just…baffling. I wonder who they’re talking about, because it’s not the people I know.

    Do extremists exist? Absolutely. And like a few of the more Talibangelical places in the US, they’ve even taken power in a few places, and they’re definitely nightmarish. But to ever even imply that these are the commonly-approved cultural practices of all Muslims, is to be as fair as ascribing all Americans to the stereotype of being Jerry Falwell, or British people to Ian Paisley.

    And it is no great sign of one’s willingness to have a useful dialogue (and how else do we convince them of the wrongness of the whole “my-invisible-friend” routine, in all its guises?) to routinely dismiss every adherent as being equivalent to the very worst example of their co-religionists as can be found: it makes us sound like we’re ignorant and clueless, which has never, to my knowledge, been a great starting point for selling one’s rationality as a guide to others.

    YMMV, of course.

    *disclosure: I work as an editor for foreign students, and have a large Muslim client base, though quite thoroughly atheist myself)

    ** In the last three months alone, a Muslim client has reminded me that they owe me money, and would I please specify how much so that they could pay it off? I have only ever had one nominally Christian client do this, in 20+ years, and if any atheists did it, they didn’t identify themselves as such to me.

  2. CaitieCat says

    Sorry – second footnote (**) should say “Three times in the last three months alone,” trying to hurry before my next client arrives.

    Also, “says to me” in the first para should be “seems to me”, long sentence kinda got away from me there.

  3. mythbri says

    From the first article you linked:

    he fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview

    I agree this statement particularly.

    And this:

    Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country. That’s particularly true of Americans, whose government has brought more violence, aggression, suffering, misery, and degradation to the world over the last decade than any other.

    Dear Muslima, anyone?

    ….

    One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is trying to recognize my ingrained sense of imperialism/colonialism. This is hard. It’s new – an aspect of the intersectionality of social justice issues that I’ve not learned much about, yet.

    I’m trying to refine my arguments so that they reflect reasoned criticism, and not colonialist superiority of the “White makes right” sort. There are valid criticisms to be made of Islam and every other religion. That criticism has to be reasoned in order to be effective, and right, though.

    Still working on this one.

  4. says

    One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is trying to recognize my ingrained sense of imperialism/colonialism. This is hard. It’s new – an aspect of the intersectionality of social justice issues that I’ve not learned much about, yet.

    As I say in my article on colonialism intersectionality that I linked to, I am brand new to this idea. I really do have the IdleNoMore movement to thank for expanding my thinking on this.

  5. says

    Well, Sam Harris is the guy who thinks that if people don’t have guns there will be just open rape in the streets, so…
    More on topic: A lot of the atrocious crimes allegedly caused by Islam itself is framing. You can see this very well on the issue of honour-killings. Do they exist? Absolutely! Are those women killed for daring to live their own lives, choose their own partners, having their own sexuality? Yes, without a doubt.
    Now the thing is, every second woman in the west is murdered by her current or former male partner. They are murdered for the exact same reasons.
    Only then is it called a family-tragedy, people are shocked, I tell you, shocked!
    It is an isolated crime nobody could forsee because there’s totes no misogyny in our culture, move along, please.
    I’m always wary when white western men are oh so concerned about the fates of muslim women. Because when talking about home they suddenly don’t seem that concerned anymore and use rape as their get-go comparison (usually for things that are “worse than rape”).
    As for those glimmers of secular hope: yes, please, more, please. But by now I can pretty well understand if any secular muslim wants nothing to do with us whatsoever,

  6. Infophile says

    @5 Giliell: Honor-killings aren’t just done by womens’ partners, they’re often also done by their fathers and other male relatives. While we still have problems with partner-related violence over here, the rate of violence by other family members is far lower. But that’s not really the core point – it’s all due to the patriarchy in the end. However you slice it, it comes down to a society which feels like men own women (to varying degrees between societies). Islam is informed by this, and is patriarchal itself, and it also perpetuates this… but so does Christianity. So does Judaism. So does just about every mainstream religion.

    But anyway, that initial quibble aside, I think you have a good point there. Patriarchy is at the root of this particular problem, though religion has certainly helped maintain it.

  7. Kyle C says

    Word for word, I’m fairly confident that Harris (and Dawkins for that matter) have spent far more time criticizing Christianity than Islam so the accusation that they single out Islam isn’t really fair. I can’t give statistics but Christianity seems gets the majority of their criticism.

    I think some of the reason why it might appear that they single out Islam is because they spend the second most time criticizing Islam. But it must be kept in mind that Islam is the world’s second largest religion by a significant margin, and one of the most widespread in terms of the number of countries where Muslims are a majority. If we’re going to have a conversation about specific religions it makes sense that Islam comes up more often than most of the rest.

    I also have some problems with the narrative that underlies much of the criticism of Harris that in the ‘hierarchy’ of oppression Muslims are the oppressed and atheists are the powerful. Atheists are oppressed in large swaths of the Muslim world where they form the majority. Atheists–at least open, outspoken atheists–do not hold positions of power and prestige in the west and some studies have shown that they are less trusted than Muslims. Yes white atheists have the luxury of ‘hiding’ that pious brown skinned Muslims do not but the fact that we have to hide who we are and what we think is sad and oppressive in itself . I’d be willing to bet that an ‘open’ atheist is as likely to be discriminated against in employment, etc. than a Muslim.

  8. jesse says

    I’ve brought this same thing up at least a half-dozen times on Ed Brayton’s blog and others, including this one, trying to get across that what people think they say and what you hear (as the recipient) are often very different things.

    On top of that, what irritates me is an old complaint: when people say “You atheists think you’re so smart” (it’s usually a religious person saying this) it’s because there really is in the Dawkins / Arthur C. Clarke scientific atheism circles a sense that we’re just so damned pleased with ourselves that I, a fellow atheist, find a little off-putting. Clarke actually called religion a form of insanity. I gently remind folks that while atheism is a more reality-based belief, it doesn’t make you smarter that you have it any more than I am smarter than say, Noam Chomsky, because I happen to have a grasp of, I dunno, E&M theory and he might not.

    This gets into the “look t the primitives” attitude that I see a lot of in “movement” atheism. It’s an easy critique, I’d call it high-school level philosophy 101. And I will say again that “I am criticizing behaviors, not people” is such a cop out and a not-pology. It’s like if I said “French Canadians are culturally a bunch of dirty people because they don’t shower” (I grew up in New England, people really said this shit) and then said “I was just critiquing a behavior” you’d all tell me I was full of it.

    And I will say that a ton of it is born of a real lack of understanding and not being willing to think that maybe other societies have a totally different way of navigating the relationship between religion and the way their society works. It’s not being willing to think that there are loads of assumptions built into the very statement “separation of church and state” that simply don’t apply everywhere, for reasons that differ place to place. Or, for that matter, the times when practicing one’s religion (for example, for Native people in the Americas or Jews in Europe) was more than just idle superstition, but a statement of self-determination.

  9. skepticsanonymous says

    I’m really trying to figure this out. Criticism of Islam as a religion is fine, but if you talk about it “too much” then it becomes “Islamaphobia” or RACISM……

  10. says

    I’m really trying to figure this out.

    No you’re not. It is explained once in the article above, and defined explicitly in both the Greenwald piece I linked to and the ‘Islamophobia exists’ piece that I linked to. The fact that something can be defined for you three times and you still “just don’t get it”, then you’re not actually trying and have just decided to give up and be an asshole in the comments.

  11. jesse says

    @skepticsanonymous: I’ll lay it out for you. Sam Harris: “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”

    So please, explain to me how we would discern this? Mind-reading? People with slavic last names named Mohamed? Non-white people? You are aware that there are Muslims who are white people?

    That’s just one little gem. Harris isn’t “criticizing Islam” — he’s trotting out a ton of old dumb stereotypes that are so cartoonish it’s ridiculous and it makes me wonder how anyone in the “rationalist” community takes him seriously.

    I have a similar issue with Dawkins, who I admire greatly as a biologist but who says things that make me wonder what century he teleported in from.

    Hitchens bugged me for the same reason. Many of the dumbest things they have said could have been rectified with a conversation of a few minutes with the neighbors. Hitchens lived in New York for a while, and he evidently never once bothered to stroll down to the neighborhoods where his Muslim neighbors lived and just talk to people. Nah, he knew everything already, ‘cuz they are a bunch of religious primitives, amirite? It was a classic example of dehumanization.

    Criticizing a religion — and there’s plenty of room to do that — isn’t a license to be an insufferable tool. It isn’t a license to let all your reptile-brained id come out. It isn’t a backhanded way of essentially calling people by racial slurs.

    Kyle C — you are conflating the situation in the US and Europe, say, with that in Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s horrifically oppressive to be an atheist there. But in the US being a Muslim — especially a brown-skinned one — is a real problem. Go ahead and wear a skullcap and traditional garb and walk around say, Memphis.

    And atheists do tend to be in relatively privileged positions (privilege is a relative thing, you see, like measuring height — I might be higher than you on the hill but there’s someone higher than me sometimes and if you walk a bit you might be higher in that context).

    Anyhow, being white, especially, makes a big honking difference. And while polls show that Americans, for example, don’t trust atheists and there are spots of discrimination that happen, it would be tough to argue that in many spaces one’s atheism matters much at all. Why? Because there’s a difference between the affirmative statement “I am an atheist” (or, “I am am a Catholic/Jew/Muslim) and just quietly saying nothing, which is what most atheists end up doing for purely practical reasons. I might ask to leave early on Passover, to see the relatives, but an atheist by definition is never going to say something like that, and nobody is going to know you are an atheist unless you declare such explicitly. Many faiths (Judaism and Islam being two) actually require dress codes precisely because by doing it you are making that declaration. Outside of Darwin t-shirts or something atheists don’t have that.

    Christians don’t have to deal with any of that because Christianity is the “default” in Western/ European descended societies.

  12. says

    As far as I can see there are very few, if indeed any, immoral practices of which Muslims are currently guilty that non-Muslims are not also guilty of, often in greater measure (whether viewing contemporary events or historical ones.

    So, for example, as far as I am aware, no society dominated by Muslims has yet to match the low bar set by, say, the USSR for mistreatment of its own citizenry, and no modern polity which is either explicitly Islamic or otherwise dominated by devout Muslims has yet to match the US for unwelcome, even violent, interference in other polities’ business over the last 10-15 years. Not to say such societies do not engage in similar behaviours, only that they aren’t on the same scale.

    So it’s all well and good to crticize, but let’s all remember that these sorts of things are differences of degree, not, as Sam Harris appears to believe, of kind.

  13. georgelocke says

    A religion isn’t merely what the books say; how people understand and interpret the books, ideas and practices that can’t be directly ascribed to these books, these are also part of religion. So, it’s fair to say that Islam as it exists today is far more oppressive than other religions, viz. death for apostasy, FGM, women’s testimony being worth less, etc. Even if Christian texts support similarly vile practices, even if some Christians would do similarly vile things if they had power, Christianity is nowhere producing this degree of suffering. Islam is.

    So it is just to hold Islam apart from other religions as being singularly awful among the world’s religions.

    The main discomfort I have in writing this is blasting “Islam” for its worst incarnations. Islam is not a monolith. For instance, most Muslims don’t practice FGM afaik (no it’s not required by the Qur’an, Hadith, Sunna, but yes it is a Muslim issue http://www.meforum.org/1629/is-female-genital-mutilation-an-islamic-problem ). Despite these misgivings, it verges on a No True Scotsman to say that Islam isn’t responsible for the ills carried out in its name. Not all Islam is the same, but a large fraction of it is terrible, and the damage this fraction causes is staggering.

    Islam is different. Islam is worse.

    Is it intrinsically worse? That is, do the problems with Islam inhere to its doctrines, or are they contingent on historical context? Context clearly plays a large role, which is easily seen by comparing the worst and best forms of Islam or considering the more tolerant episodes in Islam’s past. Christianity has an awful lot to answer for (the worst has passed). I stake no claim here. I only observe that the possibility that Islam might improve in the future is no argument that there is no problem with it now.

    Is it amenable to the sorts of secularizing influences that saved Christianity from further Inquisitions? Again, we already see that it is when we look at the context of the best and worst of Islam.

  14. Kyle C says

    Jesse – I acknowledged that white atheists have the advantage of being able to hide but I think that is problematic in itself. Muslims can reduce the amount of discrimination they face by cutting their beards and removing their hijab but we’d never ask them to do so. At my old job I had to listen to my boss occasionally rant and rave about atheists and bite my lip. I’m sure if I wore my “proud atheist” t-shirt (that ironically has been gathering dust in my closet for several years now) I would have paid a significant price.

    I understand that privilege is complex and a number of factors come into play. But I stand by the fact that an open and expressive atheist will experience significant discrimination in western society. That they are able to hide who they are isn’t really an acceptable solution to me.

  15. jesse says

    @Kyle C – wasn’t saying it’s a solution — more just a practical consequence.

    @Geogelocke — FGM isn’t a primarily Muslim-world practice, even now.

    Look at a map of countries where it is practiced.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_circumcision

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fgm_map.svg

    Those two links show a map and a list of countries. It’s worth pointing out that the parts of Africa where Muslim influence is arguably the strongest — the northern coast (Morocco to Egypt) FGM is much less common and even absent. While there is overlap with Muslim cultures in Africa, it isn’t very strong a correlation.

    For example, there’s a high prevalence of FGM all over the Sudan, and half the country is in fact animist or Christian. Nigeria has the highest rate of FGM in areas where Christians dominate; same goes for Liberia. The Central African Republic is 60% Christian and only about 15% of the population is Muslim. Ethiopia has one of the higher rates too and it is very Christian.

    FGM exists outside of Africa, and it is in several countries with Muslim populations, but the rates are nowhere near what they are in some Christian regions of Africa. In Tajikstan, for instance, it exists, but in that case it would have only been going on in the last 20 years or so since, whatever its other shortcomings, the USSR wold have outlawed that kind of thing as part of a more general program of anti-religious cultural suppression and emancipation of women.

    It’s worth saying that a quick look at the geography in Africa shows it is prevalent in the Nile Valley region and the Sahel and steppe. That doesn’t track the spread of Islam very well at all, which spread along the northern coast first, before getting to the sub-Saharan regions.

    The practice of FGM, as I understand it, is quite old and I would bet money predates the introduction of Islam in any case, since Islam doesn’t date back that far in many areas where it happens. And I just outlined why the association of FGM and Islam is pretty weak at best.

    I bring this up because you used it as one example where “Islam” was demonstrably worse than other religions.

    Now, the next question you raise is whether it’s bad because of what goes on in a lot of Islamic countries. Well, I could use the same argument to say that secularist governments are worse; Saddam Hussein was secular (Baathist ideology generally is) and so are the rulers of Burma. The Chinese government is presently engaged in a slow genocide of Tibetans. There’s plenty of examples of ostensibly secular people doing terrible things too– and on a scale that would make Ayatollah Khamenei blanch. (Hello, Stalin!) That doesn’t mean secularism is necessarily worse.

    It is true that there are terrible theocracies in the Islamic world. It’s also true that they almost without exception came to power under the sponsorship of the US. or example: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and Morocco were and are US clients. In Pakistan when the choice came between supporting a democratically elected government and a general who was BFF with the more radical parts of his military, our tax dollars supported the latter. (Musharraf spent all his time attacking the secular opposition — unions, human rights workers, lawyers).

    A similar story played out in Iran, where our government made sure that the secular and democratically elected one was destroyed. The Shah wasn’t willing to take on the mosques; he went after all the other secular opponents instead. That was fine with the US. But it didn’t work out so well when the Islamists were the only game left in town.

    And let’s not forget Afghanistan. The Mujahadeen fighters that were attacking the Russians weren’t exactly big on women’s rights, for instance. The secular government that existed before was destroyed, by us.

    Is it Islam that is uniquely bad, or the governments that your American tax dollars are supporting?

  16. georgelocke says

    @jesse thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    Re FGM, first let’s look at the map and compare it with religious demographics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Africa#Religious_distribution The countries with highest FGM concentrations, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Egypt, are mostly countries where Islam predominates (% of population Muslim is 97, 100, 94, 34, 6, 90, , respectively). (My statistics re Sudan disagree with yours, apparently because of the Sudan/South Sudan split.) In West Africa, the countries with strongest FGM concentration are Liberia, Guinea, Mali, and Gambia, with Muslim concentrations of 12, 85, 90, and 90. Is the problem limited to primarily Muslim countries? No. Is the problem present in most strongly Muslim countries? Well, it’s notably absent from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, but yes, it’s present in most Muslim countries in Africa. And the places where the problem is worst are mostly countries with an overwhelming Muslim majority. (Including Ethiopia, 34% Muslim, where the problem is much worse than in West Africa, doesn’t change this picture. Comparing the FGM map with the religion map, I observe that the parts of the country where the problem is worst are Muslims majority areas.)

    So I’d say the correlation between Islam and FGM in Africa is significant. There are many ways to slice the data, so bias is likely to have a big effect. Ideally, I’d like a correlation of FGM concentration with Muslim concentration weighted by population (rather than geographical area), which would seem to remove much opportunity for bias, but uh, that ain’t hapnin :)

    You’re correct that FGM predates Islam, btw. (One piece of evidence supporting this is a quote from the Middle East Forum article I linked to, supposedly from Mohammed, saying, “it is allowed,” to an “exciser”. All the secondary sources I’ve read agree on this timeline, in any case.) FGM doesn’t begin and end as a Muslim practice, but Islam seems to help it along. More to the point, Islam helps it along a lot and more than any other religion. “[A]t the village level, those who commit the practice believe it to be religiously mandated.” http://www.meforum.org/1629/is-female-genital-mutilation-an-islamic-problem

    I’ll respond to your remarks on theocracy when I have time.

  17. says

    georgelocke:

    I’m getting some mixed messages from your comment @14.

    Are you claiming any of the following:

    (1) Islam, as a religious social construct, commands or permits morally indefensible conduct which is different, in kind, from morally indefensible conduct commanded or permitted by other, similar constructs, such that Islam is uniquely reprehensible.

    (2) Islam, as a socio-political social construct, leads to morally indefensible social structures or behaviours in societies where it is a dominant influence, in a manner which is different in kind from other, similar constructs with similar historical or contemporary dominance, such that Islam is uniquely reprehensible.

    On the one hand, you have statements such as:

    Islam is different. Islam is worse.

    And on the other hand, you have statements such as:

    Is it [Islam] amenable to the sorts of secularizing influences that saved Christianity from further Inquisitions? Again, we already see that it is when we look at the context of the best and worst of Islam.

    —–
    As far as I can see, in order for the aggregate of practicing Muslims and societies dominated by devout Muslims to be “morally worse”, in kind, than non-Muslims and societies dominated by non-Muslims, one or both of (1) or (2) would have to be true. But as briefly treated by myself in #12, or by jesse responding to you in @16, the historical record shows that neither #1 nor #2 are true: societies and polities dominated by devout Muslims have not, and generally do not, engage in morally indefensible behaviour that is both different in kind and uniquely reprehensible, when compared to non-Muslim societies & polities – and indeed, such morally indefensible behaviour on the part of Muslim-dominated societies & polities is if anything lesser in scale compared to non-Muslim societies.

    Finally, I might add that this all appears a bit orthogonal to the main point of Crommunist’s OP, which is that atheists/secularists would do well to examine their motivations when criticizing Muslims, such that such criticisms are not based, as Sam Harris’ appear to be, on a rather spiteful bigotry, but rather on a rational consideration of how beliefs and customs inform behaviours.

  18. georgelocke says

    @composer99
    I’m don’t claim any difference in kind but a difference in degree. I mean, many holy books have atrocious content, including the Bible and Qur’an. Islam is different in applying its atrocious directives more than, say, Christianity. (It may be objected that FGM is not “Islam’s directive”. That objection has merit, and I am willing to stipulate to it. Nevertheless, I maintain that Islam enables FGM more than other religions.)

    Orthogonal? Well, I think that it’s important to put Harris’s views in context. He goes too far at times, but he’s not wrong to single Islam out for special scrutiny. I don’t see clarity on this point in Crom’s OP or the comments, and, in any case, I’m speaking to the degree of Harris’s bias. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Islam is indeed the worst religion on the planet, at least in its current incarnation.

    I am not sufficiently familiar with the Qur’an (let alone the hadiths) to know whether it encourages violence/etc. more than the Bible or other books. My sense is that making such a comparison would be terribly difficult if not impossible. I don’t know if Islam is “intrinsically worse”. I believe that it is worse because it currently does more damage.

  19. mythbri says

    @georgelocke

    Islam is different in applying its atrocious directives more than, say, Christianity.

    No, I disagree. Christianity is kept in check merely by an accident of geography. It’s prevalent in industrialized nations that have strong secular societies.

    Do you really think that if the Christian Right were to somehow gain control of the United States government and turn this country into a theocracy that it would still be better than an Islamic theocracy?

    Speaking as a woman, I sincerely disagree, if that’s the case.

    The difference of degree is only due to the secularism that keeps religion in check.

  20. georgelocke says

    @mythbri
    Yes I think a government chosen by the (US) Christian right would be better, a lot better. I mean, if we were to pick the craziest crazies they might correspond to the norm in Saudi Arabia, but the Christian right as a whole is not apt to kill apostates, forbid women driving, burn them with acid for losing their virginity, kill them for being raped, tc. In time, if they were to remain in power for many years, then it’s quite possible the Christian right would become as bad, but not now.

    Even if the only difference between Islam and other religions were a lack of secular forces holding it back, that wouldn’t change the fact that among all religions, Islam is in the greatest need of secularizing force.

  21. mythbri says

    @georgelocke

    Yes I think a government chosen by the (US) Christian right would be better, a lot better.

    I didn’t say “chosen”, by which I think you mean elected. I mean turned into a theocracy.

    Do you think that the Christian Right is not a significant threat right now, even as a nominally secular democracy? Look at the state of abortion rights in this country. Look at the way that the civil rights of LGBTQ people are being subjected to popular vote, state-by-state. Look at the collective testerical freakout in response to requiring employer-based insurance policies to cover birth control as preventive medication.

    Besides which, in Catholic-controlled countries, women die from lack of access to abortion – see Savita Halappavanar. Women are jailed for having illegal abortions or miscarriages. Today. Not hundreds of years ago. Today.

    Women are killed by their intimate partners or families here in the U.S. They’re not called “honor killings”, but the underlying misogyny is the same.

    Perhaps you’re more optimistic than I am. I see things getting much worse than you apparently do.

    In time, if they were to remain in power for many years, then it’s quite possible the Christian right would become as bad, but not now.

    You mean, go back to the way they were when there was no secular society keeping them in check? It’s not as if they have not tyrannically ruled societies when in full control. There’s the history to prove it.

    Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT)

    If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives. (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

    Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 NAB)

    If one curses his father or mother, his lamp will go out at the coming of darkness. (Proverbs 20:20 NAB)

    All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense. (Leviticus 20:9 NLT)

    If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NLT)

    A priest’s daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NAB)

    Whoever sacrifices to any god, except the Lord alone, shall be doomed. (Exodus 22:19 NAB)

    They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:12-13 NAB)

    But if this charge is true (that she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night), and evidence of the girls virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her fathers house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NAB)

    Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin your task right here at the Temple.” So they began by killing the seventy leaders. “Defile the Temple!” the LORD commanded. “Fill its courtyards with the bodies of those you kill! Go!” So they went throughout the city and did as they were told. (Ezekiel 9:5-7 NLT)

    If even then you remain hostile toward me and refuse to obey, I will inflict you with seven more disasters for your sins. I will release wild animals that will kill your children and destroy your cattle, so your numbers will dwindle and your roads will be deserted. (Leviticus 26:21-22 NLT)

    Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword. Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off. The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows. They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18 NLT)

    ^All from the Bible. A third of Americans believe the Bible is literally true.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/27682/onethird-americans-believe-bible-literally-true.aspx

  22. says

    georgelocke:

    The point people are trying to make is that, at the level of aggregates of people (you know, societies & states), Muslim-dominated societies have not and do not engage in worse behaviour than non-Muslim-dominated societies on the average. Indeed, the reverse is usually the case. (*) Hence the problem with criticisms of Muslims made in Harris’ style.

    In addition to mythbri’s comments, there exist, at least in the US and the UK, groups of Christianists (I use the term unapologetically) whose ambitions to implement Old Testament law as they see it are completely fanatical. Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars noted recently how such a Christian had recently been engaged to help develop a homeschool curriculum for American political figure Ron Paul. Gary North has seriously suggested that, in his ideal society, disobedient or disrespectful children ought to be executed.

    As far as I can see only the robust socialization imposed on citizens of materially affluent polities, and disapproval from a still-influential secular civil society, keeps the likes of North and like-minded Christianists from engaging in behaviours at least as reprehensible as splashing acid on schoolgirls’ faces.

    (*) Apart from the examples given by myself in #12, jesse in #16 (regarding geo-political behaviour of states dominated by devout Muslims versus the traditional or modern “great powers”), and mythbri in #22, there are to my knowledge no atrocities committed by Muslim societies equivalent in degree to the Rwanda genocide, the killing fields of Cambodia, the propping up of horrific dictatorships across the developing world during the Cold War (Muslim countries were among the victims of this behaviour), the White Terror in Franquist Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the concentration camp systems and/or mass murder programmes established in the USSR and Germany/Occupied Europe, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, the Japanese treatment of Korea and those parts of China occupied by Japan in the 20th century – with the exception of the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.

    None of this is to deny that there are individual Muslims and groups thereof who, inspired by their religious beliefs, engage in despicable behaviours (of which several examples have been discussed). Only that an attempt to characterize Islam as singularly “worse” than the altenatives is, bluntly put, incorrect, whether in kind or in degree.

  23. georgelocke says

    @mythbri

    I didn’t say “chosen”, by which I think you mean elected. I mean turned into a theocracy.

    By “chosen”, I meant “If they had their way”. Aside from Bible quotes, you focus on abortion rights, which are not in such great shape in the Muslim world http://www.womenonwaves.org/en/page/460/abortion-laws-worldwide . (When you say that women are killed by their Christian families, you’re referring to facts I don’t have at hand. cite? I acknowledge that abusive husbands kill their wives with disturbing regularity in the US as elsewhere.)

    Abortion rights in Muslim theocracies are as bad as they would be under a Christian theocracy, but Muslim theocracies exhibit many other disturbing abuses on top of these, so I still don’t see your point.

    You mean, go back to the way they were when there was no secular society keeping them in check? It’s not as if they have not tyrannically ruled societies when in full control. There’s the history to prove it.

    I’m taking a position about the religions as they are now. My position is that the influence of secular society is not merely preventing Christians’ evil intent from coming to fruition but preventing the evil intent in the first place. Many years in a challenging marketplace of ideas has softened the religion. Islam has not had this advantage, and as a result it needs secularizing force more than other religions.

    I don’t see the point of listing Bible quotes. We don’t see too many Christians avoiding clothing with mixed fibers, and indeed a Christian necessarily picks and chooses which passages are “metaphorical” and which aren’t. Any fundamentalist apologist will tell you that “it’s clear from context” which is which, amounting the same thing. How is the religion practiced? That is the relevant question.

    Mormons are surely among the more retrograde Christian sects, yet, as Harris is fond of pointing out, their protest to the Book of Mormon was an add in the Playbill. No one can seriously argue that the Sunni establishment would react so mildly. What fraction of Christians would advocate the death of Stone and Parker if their satire had targeted their own brand of faith? What fraction would take to the streets, burning embassies and terrorizing their Jewish neighbors?

    I believe that you are underestimating the civilizing effect of a few hundred years of democracy.

  24. georgelocke says

    The fraction of Christians whose beliefs would justify the rhetoric mythbri puts forth is just not comparable to the huge cross section of Muslim communities holding abhorrent views.

  25. says

    How is the religion practiced? That is the relevant question.

    I would argue the exact opposite. Many (surely not all) of Harris’ criticisms of Islam are about Islam as a philosophy, not the particular way it is practiced. When he does that, he makes the implicit claim that Islam as a philosophy is different from Christianity as a philosophy. It seems that you agree that it is not quantitatively different from Christianity, and that the real difference has to do with variables that are not related to the religion per se. This suggests to me that “how the religion is practiced” is fundamentally unimportant when you consider the other extraneous variables that we both agree do influence behaviour.

  26. says

    georgelocke:

    The fraction of Christians whose beliefs would justify the rhetoric mythbri puts forth is just not comparable to the huge cross section of Muslim communities holding abhorrent views.

    You seem to have a set of figures in your head that you’re neither sharing nor providing support for. This “fraction” of Christians you refer to, how many is that? How did you arrive at that number? This “huge cross section of Muslim communities holding abhorrent views”…where did that figure come from?

    I’m very curious where you live, because I wonder if it is in a country where Christianity exists, and is so ubiquitous that you’ve soaked in it for so long that you cannot see how bad it really is. I live in Pensacola, Florida, and from where I sit, if I were to sift through news articles around the US, I am fairly certain I’d see horrific stories–every bit as bad as those you refer to in the Muslim world. Nor would I have to search long or hard.

    Have you done a proper search, with the aim of not confirming your existing biases?

    Is it possible that your focus on the horrors of Islam is due to media influence (i.e. the media’s presentation of Islamist extremists)?

    Is it possible that you’re blind to (willfully ignorant or not) the atrocities (some or all) committed by other religions?

    Also, even *if* you’re correct, you’ve made an assertion and given precious little beyond your opinion to support it. If you’re correct about Islam being worse than Christianity, where is your proof of that?

  27. says

    georgelocke:

    You ask:

    What fraction of Christians would advocate the death of Stone and Parker if their satire had targeted their own brand of faith? What fraction would take to the streets, burning embassies and terrorizing their Jewish neighbors?

    The answer is, a staggeringly large proportion within the last 100 years.

    Considering, as noted above, even presuming your conclusion “Islam is different. Islam is worse”, you concede elsewhere that this appears to be due to contingencies of time, place, and sociopolitics (“Is it [Islam] amenable to the sorts of secularizing influences that saved Christianity from further Inquisitions? Again, we already see that it is when we look at the context of the best and worst of Islam.”), I’m not really sure why you are still trying to push that conclusion; it appears to be pre-bunked even in your own writings on this thread.

  28. georgelocke says

    The difference is conditions on the ground. How many times do I have to explain that I’m talking about the religion as it is now rather than its ineffable essence? Any social institution can be changed to become other than it is. Islam needs to change more than other religions.

  29. georgelocke says

    @Crommunist

    Many (surely not all) of Harris’ criticisms of Islam are about Islam as a philosophy, not the particular way it is practiced.

    I should have written “What do believers of the religion understand it to be?” My concern is not only practice, but ideas. In particular, what are the ideas that Muslims identify with Islam?

    Islam is not a single, unified philosophy. Philosophies ranging from Ahmadiyya to Wahhabism bear the name “Islam”. I wrote, “How is the religion practiced?” to distinguish those philosophies which are in somehow essential to Islam from the current Muslim understandings of the philosophy of Islam. The latter is what concerns me.

    Religions are extremely malleable. A believer may find support for nearly any position in his holy book. What positions do believers use the Qur’an to support? What positions do believers identify with Islam?

    It seems that you agree that it is not quantitatively different from Christianity, and that the real difference has to do with variables that are not related to the religion per se.

    I do not agree with this. A religion is what the believers say it is, and Muslims tend to say their religion is something much worse than what Christians tend to say; that is, Islam is worse than Christianity. What I would agree with is that there are conditions unrelated to the religion per se which could cause Islam to become something other than what it is.

    The fact that Islam could become better is no argument that it is not currently bad.

  30. says

    georgelocke:

    You state:

    The difference is conditions on the ground. How many times do I have to explain that I’m talking about the religion as it is now rather than its ineffable essence?

    And how many times do others have to then point out that even then it is still not the case that “Islam is different. Islam is worse”?

  31. georgelocke says

    I am quite open to the possibility that my understanding of the facts is incorrect, and this thread has given me a lot to think about. I haven’t answered many of the arguments put to me about the facts in part because I do not have answers. I am prepared to revise my opinion.

    Yet I have not debunked my own position. Contingencies are to blame for Islam’s problems to whatever extent; whether that extent is 10% or 100% doesn’t matter in determining how big the problems are. (I suspect that 100% is closer than 10%, giving me cause for hope.) I was frustrated feeling like I had to explain this several times although, on reflection, I guess you may have been getting at the possibility that the problems are more directly caused by these other contingencies with Islam itself playing no causal role (or a small one).

    I don’t think I’ve changed my opinion just yet. If my guess is right then I still don’t agree, but I’ll try and seek out some facts and hopefully clarify things for myself.

  32. says

    I guess you may have been getting at the possibility that the problems are more directly caused by these other contingencies with Islam itself playing no causal role (or a small one).

    That, or that it plays the same role in the atrocities of today’s Islam that Christianity played in Christianity’s long (and impressive) record of atrocity.

  33. georgelocke says

    If the contingencies which shape Islam were the direct cause of the harm carried out in Islam’s name, that would invalidate my position. (I do not believe this to be the case. Islam is the product of its history, but its officers have plenty of power, and they use that power for ill under the belief that Islam commands it. This belief makes Islam morally culpable.)

    I believe that Christianity was causally implicated in the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunting, etc., but I have to reiterate my position that given that (IMO) Christianity’s darkest days are passed, it is better than it was. Thus, in my reasoning, only Christianity’s recent record (e.g. condom use in Africa, anti-gay bigotry and violence, systematic child rape…) is relevant to the relative ranking of Islam among the world’s most harmful religions. A historical ranking of which religion has done the most damage is a reasonable thing to look into, but I think Harris’s position is largely aimed at mitigating future harm, for which the recent record is much more predictive.

    I think I can state my case this way: among the big problems endemic to religions, there are some that afflict Islam much worse than others (women’s rights, freedom of speech/conscience), and few where Islam is much better. (The moral calculus works out with Islam at the bottom.) Islam isn’t entirely on board with condom use afaict, and its position on homosexuality is atrocious. Child rape would be one notable area where (Catholic) Christianity far surpasses Islam’s damage, perhaps due to the lack of centralized authority in Islam.

  34. says

    I believe that Christianity was causally implicated in the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunting, etc., but I have to reiterate my position that given that (IMO) Christianity’s darkest days are passed, it is better than it was

    Which is, I believe, the consensus position here. There is something inherently harmful in religion when it colludes with state power. When it is checked by strong secular institutions (as is the case in Europe and is not the case in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, part of Pakistan, parts of Indonesia, etc.), it becomes less harmful. There is an argument (and I am no longer sure whether or not you are making it) that Islam is worse, even when controlling for the influence of secular institutions and other factors like poverty or geopolitics. I have not seen a compelling case to suggest that this is true, aside from quotes taken from the Qur’an that can find ready comparison to Biblical verses.

    Child rape would be one notable area where (Catholic) Christianity far surpasses Islam’s damage, perhaps due to the lack of centralized authority in Islam.

    Debatable. We know about what the Catholic Church has done. Absence of evidence, in this case, is not necessarily evidence of absence. I would be shocked if child abuse and child rape were not present in Muslim theocracies where individuals have great power and there is little oversight.

  35. georgelocke says

    There is an argument (and I am no longer sure whether or not you are making it) that Islam is worse, even when controlling for the influence of secular institutions and other factors like poverty or geopolitics.

    I don’t know how to control for those influences, so I can’t make that argument. My position is that Islam needs those influences more than other religions. I think this position is largely consistent with Harris’s, who speaks mainly

    I agree that comparing holy books is largely a fruitless endeavor. The books and their differences must have unique effects, but it’s much easier to ask what a religion is than why it is that way.

    My position, in the end, comes down to my understanding of the facts, which is that Islam does more damage than other religions, so we should be more concerned about it. I believe I have made a case for this position that goes beyond mere assertion, but I admit that I need more data. Perhaps I should adopt an agnostic view in the meantime, but I am not quite ready to go there at this moment. My sense is that the preponderance of evidence is on my side, but, even if that’s the case, it may be that “the error bars are too big” to justify my position.

  36. georgelocke says

    failed to finish my sentence there.

    I think this position is largely consistent with Harris’s, who speaks to the harm caused by Islam and its specific doctrines.

  37. says

    …and its specific doctrines.

    And this is the problem right here. Which specific doctrines? Which specific doctrines of Islam cannot be found in other religious texts?

  38. georgelocke says

    I don’t know what Harris would say, but the issue of praxis is critical. We may find similar commandments in the Bible and the Qur’an, but how those commandments are applied is where I would put my own focus.

  39. says

    Which then, as I’ve been saying all along (and as you move back and forth between saying you agree and then saying things that stand in stark relief to your claimed agreement), makes it not about Islam at all, but about the various external factors that make religions into tyrannies. You can’t have it both ways, I’m afraid. Either the problem is something intrinsic to Islam (in which case, citation please) or it is the circumstances happening in the parts of the world in which Islam has taken root – circumstances that would have similar results if any religion held sway there.

  40. georgelocke says

    Imagine a dog trained to fight. The dog’s owner is to blame for the dog’s condition. We may expect that any dog under such conditions would become vicious. But the dog itself remains a danger. The dog may be rehabilitated in the future, and it may have been a sweet puppy, but it is dangerous now. The dog’s viciousness is not “intrinsic”, but it is still vicious. If the dog bites, the dog is proximately responsible for the wound. Compared to other dogs, it needs special treatment.

    Whatever conditions are responsible for Islam’s current state, whatever we may do to control its future, Islam’s current state is worse than that of other religion. Whatever is immutably intrinsic to Islam is largely irrelevant to my argument, and I’ve been consistent in making that distinction. My concern is how Islam happens to be.

    There may be some confusion arising from two senses of the word intrinsic. Intrinsic can be used as opposed to extrinsic: what is part of the object and what isn’t. Intrinsic can also be used to describe necessary, essential aspects of the object. I’ve been mindful of the distinction between what is part of Islam and what is a necessary part of Islam, characterizing the latter as “intrinsic” consistent with the second sense (merriam webster emphasizes the second sense). I can’t tell which meaning is intended in post #40.

    Islam, like any religion, can vary wildly both in its cross section at a given moment and its aggregate across time. There are elements to Islam which cannot change without Islam becoming something that isn’t Islam at all, e.g. Mohammed’s centrality, reliance on the Qur’an and hadith (though even the contents of a holy book can be expected to be somewhat fluid), but if both Ahmadiyya and Wahhabism can be Islam then it seems there is a vast domain of doctrines that are “intrinsic” to the religion in the first sense but not the second. Both Ahmadiyya and Wahhabism have unique “intrinsic1″ qualities even though these qualities may change or be discarded (thus these qualities are not “intrinsic2″).

    That’s a lot of words to say just this: there will be parts of a religion which are not necessary or essential, yet they are still parts of the religion. (Those parts remain “intrinsic1″ to the religion.)

    FGM is such a case. It is not necessary to Islam (nor unique to Islam), but Muslims who do it see it as part of Islam ( http://www.meforum.org/1629/is-female-genital-mutilation-an-islamic-problem cited above), thus it is part of Islam though it is not “intrinsic2″. The Inquisition was an “intrinsic1″ to Christianity in the sense we may identify it as a Christian phenomenon, part of its history and formerly part of its doctrine, but it is not an “intrinsic2″ part of Christianity in that Christianity can still be Christian without an Inquisition or even when it opposes an Inquisition.

    If Christianity was responsible for the Crusades, then of course Islam is responsible for riots opposing cartoons, oppressing women, etc.

    Either the problem is something intrinsic to Islam (in which case, citation please) or it is the circumstances happening in the parts of the world in which Islam has taken root – circumstances that would have similar results if any religion held sway there.

    I think this is a false dichotomy, excluding the possibility that the Islam is causally responsible the problem but not because of anything intrinsic2.

    The question is: what is the role of Islam in these abhorrent circumstances? My answer: it is an organ of power through which these circumstances are enforced. The ideology through which these odious values are disseminated is named Islam. Ergo it bears responsibility for them. Whether these values are a necessary part of Islam isn’t quite irrelevant, but Islam bears responsibility in either case (more if they are necessary).

    In similar circumstances, other religions could take on the role Islam has in these circumstances; Islam is not unique in this respect. Also, afaict there is nothing about Islam that necessitates that it adopt these values; it has adopted them because of historical contingencies. Present day Islam mandates abominable misogyny and closedmindedness, but it need not be so. Such commitments are not a necessary part of the religion. Though contingent, they are part of the religion.

    Of course extrinsic historical forces shape Islam’s current condition, but you can’t separate Islam from its current condition. Islam is its current condition. All consequences of Islam’s current condition are consequences of Islam notwithstanding Islam’s contingence on other factors. One more time: however Islam’s qualities came to be, they remain qualities of Islam.

  41. says

    If the dog bites, the dog is proximately responsible for the wound. Compared to other dogs, it needs special treatment.

    One more time: however Islam’s qualities came to be, they remain qualities of Islam.

    I guess I’ll just re-iterate this from the OP:

    “This is not an issue of mere semantics or hurt feelings. If Islam is, indeed, a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine, then we must propose (as some, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, do) a radical and innovative method of mitigating the harm that involves the destruction of Islam as a religion. The harm is irretrievably baked into the cake, if this particular interpretation of events is to be believed. Personally, I think that this is a mindset borne of panic and colonialist attitudes about “the West” vs. “the Islamic world”. If Islam is just a run-of-the-mill example of what happens when religious authority is given militarily and political strength (as the experts suggest), then the way we approach it is the same way that we approached Christianity – strengthening secular institutions and providing more opportunity for people to develop, personally and economically, outside of a theocratic system.”

    I am fine with the substitution of the word “necessary” for “intrinsic”. It accurately captures my meaning.

  42. georgelocke says

    Islam is a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine, but its doctrine is not baked into the cake.

    My point is that your grounds for objecting to Harris are much more limited than you suppose; that is, he is not wrong for singling out Islam, but he is wrong in certain cases as for example racial profiling.

    If there is any colonialism here, it is in the insistence than Islam is not to blame for the rampant misogyny and violence carried out in its name.

  43. says

    Islam is a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine, but its doctrine is not baked into the cake.

    Well then you have a serious problem, which is that “Islam” describes a wide variety of beliefs and practices and doctrines. If you’re saying “the particular sects of Islam that do misogynistic and violent things are bad”, then yeah you’ll get precious little disagreement. But unless you also believe that being a patriot is “a particularly bad philosophy in its very doctrine”, then I’m not sure how your argument can be applied to Islam specifically but not group The Tea Party and The Minutemen and The US Marine Corps and the guy who sings the national anthem before the baseball game into one category of harm.

  44. mythbri says

    If there is any colonialism here, it is in the insistence than Islam is not to blame for the rampant misogyny and violence carried out in its name.

    Who has been saying that?

    I certainly haven’t. But I think it’s funny (in the sense that it’s not funny at all) when Islam is pointed to as an example of the last bastion of real misogyny in the world by white, cis-male atheists who then turn right around and dismiss concepts like rape culture and sexual harassment that affect the women in their own cultures.

    Also, there are tactics of criticism that are applied to Islam that are problematic. Sam Harris is a prime example of this, with his apologism for torture and promotion of racial profiling (please – don’t pretend that it’s possible to profile someone based on a set of beliefs).

    It’s this colonialist attitude of superiority and being civilized that is the problem – not advocating for equality and human rights for people who don’t have them.

  45. georgelocke says

    @crommunist

    Well then you have a serious problem, which is that “Islam” describes a wide variety of beliefs and practices and doctrines. If you’re saying “the particular sects of Islam that do misogynistic and violent things are bad”, then yeah you’ll get precious little disagreement.

    In my first post on this thread, I acknowledged that Islam is not a single thing and that my comments can’t apply to all of it. I wrote, “Not all Islam is the same, but a large fraction of it is terrible, and the damage this fraction causes is staggering.” (More damage than other religions.) Particular sects of Islam are indeed authentic Islam, and there’s nothing incoherent about holding Islam responsible for its components.

    @mythbri
    Who has been saying that?
    Crommunist came pretty close, writing, “Either the problem is something intrinsic to Islam (in which case, citation please) or it is the circumstances happening in the parts of the world in which Islam has taken root – circumstances that would have similar results if any religion held sway there.” Either the problem is intrinsic Islam or the circumstances that shape Islam, he says. The circumstances are causes, but Islam, so shaped, contingently, is also a cause; Islam is not exculpated on the grounds that it might not be so terrible if not for all the things that make it terrible.

    But I think it’s funny (in the sense that it’s not funny at all) when Islam is pointed to as an example of the last bastion of real misogyny in the world by white, cis-male atheists who then turn right around and dismiss concepts like rape culture and sexual harassment that affect the women in their own cultures.

    There are certainly people who do this — are you saying that I’m one of them? I’m as privileged as they get, but I know it, and I listen when people tell me their concerns rather than dismissing them.

    Also, there are tactics of criticism that are applied to Islam that are problematic. Sam Harris is a prime example of this, with his apologism for torture and promotion of racial profiling (please – don’t pretend that it’s possible to profile someone based on a set of beliefs).

    full agreement again. Harris isn’t perfect and some of his attitudes are genuinely racist. His general stance that Islam is the worst is not racist.

  46. mythbri says

    @georgelocke

    I realized, after my comment #45 posted, that it was vague enough that you might think that I was implicating you when I said this:

    But I think it’s funny (in the sense that it’s not funny at all) when Islam is pointed to as an example of the last bastion of real misogyny in the world by white, cis-male atheists who then turn right around and dismiss concepts like rape culture and sexual harassment that affect the women in their own cultures.

    To my reading, you haven’t given any indication that you share this attitude, and I apologize if I made it seem that way.

    To look at what Crom said:

    Either the problem is something intrinsic to Islam (in which case, citation please) or it is the circumstances happening in the parts of the world in which Islam has taken root – circumstances that would have similar results if any religion held sway there.

    I don’t see this as Crom saying that none of the blame for horrific misogyny and tyranny lies on Islam’s doorstep – of course it does. But it is not just because it is Islam that all of these problems are allowed to continue.

    Remember when I quoted those passages from the Bible in #22? I did that to show that Christianity is not fundamentally different from Islam. If, by some accident of history and geography, it was Christianity propped up by militant theocracy and Islam tempered by strong secular societies and governments, we would still be having this conversation – only in the reverse. If, by some accident of history and geography, we were criticizing Christianity in the way we are criticizing Islam, Christianity would still be to blame for the bad things that were carried out in its name. But it wouldn’t be because the two religions are fundamentally different from each other – it would be because they exist in different circumstances.

    You say that Islam, as it is now, in the areas in which it is supported by theocratic government and the strength of the military, most needs a strong secular influence in order to temper the damage it does.

    I agree with this absolutely.

    For example, take FGM – I can make a non-colonialist argument against the practice of FGM on the basis of bodily autonomy. In many cases it happens to girls that are too young to give any kind of informed consent, and forcibly and permanently altering someone’s body against their will is wrong.

    It would be problematic if I made an argument against FGM by commenting on it as a barbaric and uncivilized practice, and that these little girls need me to “save” them from their own culture, and how awful it is that these children’s genitals are forever altered – especially when in the Western world male circumcision is common, defended and promoted, and the plastic surgery type of labial “clipping” is becoming more and more popular to “make vaginas less ugly.”

    Do you see what I mean?

  47. mythbri says

    Also, this:

    Harris isn’t perfect and some of his attitudes are genuinely racist. His general stance that Islam is the worst is not racist.

    Because of Harris’ torture apologism, promotion of racial profiling and overall neoconservative jingoism, I am skeptical of the motivation behind any of his criticisms of Islam.

  48. georgelocke says

    @mythbri
    But it is not just because it is Islam that all of these problems are allowed to continue.
    Agree.

    It would be problematic if I made an argument against FGM by commenting on it as a barbaric and uncivilized practice, and that these little girls need me to “save” them from their own culture, and how awful it is that these children’s genitals are forever altered – especially when in the Western world male circumcision is common, defended and promoted, and the plastic surgery type of labial “clipping” is becoming more and more popular to “make vaginas less ugly.”

    Do you see what I mean?

    I agree that the above are bad, colonialist arguments.

    Because of Harris’ torture apologism, promotion of racial profiling and overall neoconservative jingoism, I am skeptical of the motivation behind any of his criticisms of Islam.

    Fair enough. My perspective is that we’re all racists. Harris isn’t owning up to his part, so he’s failing his responsibility to correct for his bias – he needs to “check his privilege”. I think most of his arguments hold up on their own merits, though not torture or racial profiling.

    Let’s take these two examples and examine the problems with Harris’s position: They don’t work, and they’re inherently immoral. If they worked really well (and were the only effective solutions to dire problems) it would be worth the moral outrage and its practical consequences; under consequentialist ethics, such a syllogism is more or less unavoidable. Of course, they don’t work, and there are better solutions, so the cost is nowhere close to being justified.

    Harris isn’t wrong for weighing the costs and benefits per se, and he does receive criticism for deigning to even consider such moral calculus. That criticism is naive, and Harris is effective in refuting it. Harris’s problem is abject failure to understand the costs and unfounded confidence in the benefits. I think I would go even further and say that there’s a sort of bloodthirst creeping in to his reasoning on these subjects.

  49. mythbri says

    @georgelocke

    If they worked really well (and were the only effective solutions to dire problems) it would be worth the moral outrage and its practical consequences

    This is debatable; indeed it is only “worth it” if one subscribes to consequentialist ethics.

    Harris isn’t wrong for weighing the costs and benefits per se, and he does receive criticism for deigning to even consider such moral calculus. That criticism is naive, and Harris is effective in refuting it. Harris’s problem is abject failure to understand the costs and unfounded confidence in the benefits.

    I’m not sure that I agree with this. There are many ideas that are repugnant, and doing the “moral calculus” regarding the costs and benefits of those ideas deserves some criticism – especially when the person doing the moral calculus is in a position of higher societal power than those affected by the math. Sam Harris has claimed that even he would be “profiled” for “looking Muslim” if the policies he advocates are adopted.

    Ha.

    Harris is no fool, and subconsciously at least he understands that his white privilege would protect him from the worst consequences of such policies. He knows he’s not “one of them”, and despite his assertions that the only thing that unites Muslims is beliefs rather than skin color, he has an idea in his mind of what kind of people he would be in favor of profiling.

    Furthermore, floating the idea of a nuclear strike is repugnant – because regardless of the “cause”, the consequences of a nuclear strike will always include a huge loss of human life and devastating environmental effects. There is no “moral calculus” that makes this acceptable, and Harris is rightly criticized for even entertaining the idea.

    People are certainly free to “do the math” for all sorts of ideas, and they will receive criticism for it. It’s surely easy to perform acts of moral calculus when you assign a lower value to the people who will be harmed or killed by the results of your calculations.

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