Both wrong, both right

Uh-oh. Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald are clashing. They both make good points and some very bad points.

Here’s where I agree fully with Harris. There has been a strange and nasty backlash against atheism lately, and it’s largely driven by ignorance and bias. There was a simply awful article in Salon, accusing atheists of being islamophobes — it was disgracefully dishonest, and Greenwald does himself no favors by linking favorably to it.

But it’s true. Atheists don’t like Islam. We also don’t like Catholicism, Episcopalianism, or whatever jelly-like dribble Karen Armstrong is peddling today. But I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests. We can place various cults on a relatively objective scale of repugnance for their attitudes towards human rights, education, equality, honesty, etc., and on civil liberties, you know, that stuff we liberals are supposed to care about, Islam as a whole is damnably bad.

It is not islamophobia to recognize reality.

Also, there’s a bad case of confirmation bias going on here. I still get email from people whining that I’d be afraid to criticize Islam because I was very rude to Catholicism once or twice. And if I criticize Islam, as Harris has done, I get complaints that I’m an islamophobic bigot. It’s all about whose ox is being gored. I also can’t claim that my degree of concern about a particular religion is always objectively derived from the amount of harm they do; I probably complain less about Islam than Harris does, not because I deplore it less, but because I’m more focused on local/national issues, and there is a striking dearth of Muslims in rural Minnesota. Harris has a more international perspective than I do, Dawkins is clearly more European, etc.

But there’s also a matter on which I agree completely with Greenwald. I think it is good and realistic to criticize Islam heavily, but there are also good and realistic and productive ways to address the problem of Islam, and I don’t share much common ground with Harris — or to an even greater degree, with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Harris’s defense of his position exposes the problem. I don’t disagree with him on the odious nature of Islam (and Catholicism, and Lutheranism, and…) but there’s something implicit and unrecognized in this statement.

Before you retweet defamatory garbage about me to 125,000 people, it would nice if you looked at the article from which that joker had mined that “very revealing quote.” The whole point of my original article, written in 2006, was to bemoan the loss of liberal moral clarity in the war on terror—and to worry about the influence of the Christian conservatives in the U.S. and fascists in Europe.

“liberal moral clarity in the war on terror”…there’s only one justifiable liberal and morally clear position on that: the “war on terror” is fundamentally wrong. Too often the “moral clarity” we’re asked to endorse is a whole-hearted support for bombing foreign countries, sending in drones to blow up any association of Muslims (like wedding parties), and replying to violence with violence amplified a thousand-fold. Greenwald also quotes Harris:

Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.

No. No one is scarier than Cheney. Cheney is a moral monster who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, a callous, greedy bureaucrat who engineered murderous wars against whole peoples. Those tens of millions of Muslims are mostly interested in being left alone, in not being victimized by richer nations, in getting along with their neighbors. They’re also victims of a rotten religion that encourages tribalism and misogyny. A “war on terror” — a concept simultaneously quixotic and kafkaesque — is not and can not be the solution.

I despise Islam as much as Harris does, and as much as Hitchens did. Where we differ is that I categoricaly reject any militaristic solution — I heard Hitchens literally advocate a solution to the conflict with Iran by making the corpses bounce in the rubble of our bombing runs, and was appalled. I suspect that Greenwald is made uncomfortable with what some of the New Atheists write for the same reason, but is mistakenly assigning the problem to our rejection of the lies of faith.

I side with Gregory Paul on the source of, and the path to resolution, of these religious conflicts. The problems aren’t going to be solved by destroying economies, or by killing or oppressing people — that will only worsen the situation.

It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where wealth is concentrated among an elite few and the masses are impoverished that the great majority cling to the reassurance of faith.

Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one’s middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples’ need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life’s calamities, help them get what they don’t have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

How do we destroy Islam? Not by terrorizing Muslims, but by respecting them as people and giving them access to the same economic and educational opportunities that we have.

To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

That’s liberal moral clarity.

Comments

  1. says

    “by respecting them as people and giving them access to the same economic and educational opportunities that we have.”

    Err, sadly no. Gregory Paul’s description of irreligious societies manifestly does not describe the United States, which is also, no coincidence, not irreligious.

  2. raven says

    There has been a strange and nasty backlash against atheism lately, and it’s largely driven by ignorance and bias.

    It has also been driven by the success of atheism and the Nones, now up to 20% of the population and rising rapidly.

    And the dying of US xianity, projected to go below 50% around 2030-2040.

    Even the xians, not known for thinking much, have discovered this. Both the Catholics and Southern Baptists have a new plan. They are going to double down on their craziness. Because doing more of what caused the decline is going to work. LOL.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Also, within Islam, and even within Sunni Islam, you can find a wide diversity. On the one extreme there are the fundamentalists we all know and “love”, on the other… the currently ruling party of Turkey isn’t far from all those European weakly conservative parties that call themselves “Christian Social” and/or “Christian Democratic” and rule half the time.

    No. No one is scarier than Cheney.

    I giggled, because it’s true.

    Err, sadly no.

    “We” here means those that haven’t fallen out of the US middle class yet.

  4. says

    cervantes:

    Gregory Paul alludes to your point in one of the excerpts quoted by PZ:

    Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

    One also notes, however, that there are regions of the US which are more like the polities Gregory Paul describes – and as far as I can tell, those regions are increasingly secular, themselves. So PZ is not off the mark here.

  5. says

    If I may respectfully point out a logical and rhetorical mismatch in Our Tentacular Host’s statement, for the purpose of improving the argument:

    But I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests.

    The problem here is that Anglicanism # Christianity — and that Shi’a # Islam. (And, of course, the equivalent declarations of subsects within Christianity are, all too often, equally vile.) As specific examples, try changing “Anglicanism” to “Mormonism” in the argument and see where that takes you — or “Islam” to “Sufism”!

    This is not to defend the default ideology* (or rhetoric) of Islam, by any means, and particularly not the ideology (or rhetoric) of some of the more-obvious/prevalent fundamentalist sects, such as the particular variety of Shi’a currently entrenched in and around Tehran. I’m only suggesting that tarring all of Islam with particular theological points that are not universally accepted by adherants of Islam undermines one’s credibility, in the same way as claiming that all Christians believe the not-even-universal-among-medieval-Catholics meme that Jews eat babies undermines one’s belief. Besides, babies haven’t had enough exercise to develop any flavor…

    * “Theology” is just “ideology” with a religious gloss on it… and one must remember that organized religion is just politics for the sons who won’t inherit the land.

  6. noastronomer says

    “Err, sadly no. Gregory Paul’s description of irreligious societies manifestly does not describe the United States, which is also, no coincidence, not irreligious.”

    Your assumption there is that the United States can be considered one society. It’s not.

    Mike.

  7. Dunc says

    I see other people have already beaten me to the punch vis-a-vis treating “Islam” as a monolith defined by its most reactionary elements, whilst recognising the diversity within “Christianity”, but I figure I may as well add to the pile… There is no single, agreed-upon definition of “Islam”, and if you’re going to take a literal reading of the foundational texts as a guide, then “Christianity” isn’t much better. And while we can argue about the terminology, failing to recognise the diversity in very large groups of people is usually a sign of some kind of prejudice. You may want to engage in further self-examination here.

  8. says

    Except the debate (at least from me) isn’t about the people. It’s about a false religious doctrine called Islam, which despite the diversity of its implementations does have a recognizable core, just as does Christianity.

  9. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death.

    So, just to point out that Islam isn’t a single church in the manner of Anglicanism. “Islam” doesn’t have that as a point of doctrine, though many, many Islams do. I don’t know enough to say whether a majority of muslims participate in Mosques that holds such executions “commendable”. I can say that official, nation-wide policies of too many muslim-majority states do have such punishments. Whether they are ruled by their religious minorities a la Israel or whether that’s the will of the majority I can’t say. But I can say there’s no central authority in Sunni Islam and even Shia Islam is somewhat fractured.

    In some ways, a central authority would be a benefit. There’s a long history of imam disagreement – it doesn’t reach the news often. But a doctrinal struggle inside a global Caliphate? That would almost certainly be big news. So we don’t hear about those who think such dogma is shameful, it’s dog-bits-man. We hear when things are outrageous enough to make the news.

    This is beginning to make me gag a little because the level of murderous entitlement in far too many muslim communities is ridiculously high and I don’t want to be seen as defending that in any way. But I find the polite but ubiquitous Irish insistence that if a woman wants to receive the full status of a human being she shouldn’t be pregnant to be also horrifically offensive, and I don’t want to assume I know more than I do about how widespread such murderous entitlement actually is in muslim communities about which I know so little.

    More later.

  10. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    aw, crud. Took to long to write.

    PZ and others, ignore my #10

  11. laurentweppe says

    There was a simply awful article in Salon, accusing atheists of being islamophobes — it was disgracefully dishonest

    Has it ever crossed your mind that, maybe, just maybe, some famous atheists may actually be far-right authoritarian douches who are just pretending to be progressists in order to… well: to fuck people like you?

    Because between:
    • Harris, with his endorsment of cultural determinism, plus his nuke and torture fetichism
    • Hitchens, who was sooooo exhilarated (his word) by 9/11 ’cause finally the West would teach those Mahometans who’s the alpha male of civilizations
    • Dawkins, who plays dumb and pretends to be oblivious of the way the islamophobic european far-right co-opted -without a fucking fight- the secularist jargon to disguise its racism behind a pretense of principled defense of modernity, and who, well, pretty much confessed that his much vaunted erudition about the muslim religion he loves to target so much was faked (guy spends years quote minning the Quran, then admits that he never actually read the book, then tries to be cute and says he does not understand why he is being compared to far-right conmen who did exactly that for the past 20 years)

    All of whome love(d) to be seen as paragons of humanist enlightenment, there’s plenty of “disgracefully dishonesty” to pass around.

  12. CaitieCat says

    Has it ever crossed your mind that, maybe, just maybe, some famous atheists may actually be far-right authoritarian douches who are just pretending to be progressists

    laurentweppe, I agree with you in general; I wonder, however, that you skipped over the possibility that they’re not actually even pretending to be progressivist: Dawkins and Hitchens are just right-wing authoritarian douchebags, who happen to also be secular/atheist.

  13. anuran says

    Sadly, Glenn is mostly right. Sam Harris is a raging bigot. It’s not just a general anti-religious principle applied equally to Islam. He and Dawkins have a special hardon for Muslims – not just the religious tradition of Islam – that is truly vile. Suicide bombers are the norm. The heart of Islam is hatred of anything and everyone else. Most Muslims are sleeper agents. There are no Muslims feminists.

    As a rotting cherry on that festering shitheap of bigotry Dawkins smugly says he doesn’t have to actually talk to Muslims or study their history and intellectual traditions to condemn them as a group.

    It’s Pam Geller- or George Zimmerman-worthy

  14. nooneinparticular says

    Well said. Only comment I’ll make is in response to one Gregory Paul made.

    Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.

    It seems to me that an argument could be made that this is not true WRT to the US. Hard to find another advanced democracy that is so besotted with religion.

    Oh wait. We’re not exactly a country that “enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions” are we?

  15. says

    That we’ve repeatedly won against the excesses of ignorance in Christian religions is no reason to excuse them when mentioning the ignorance that Islam is used for.

    Given the same poverty, tribalism, and warlords, Christianity would do the same things we see in Islamic countries today – just look at the horrible acts of the few times Christian organizations get publicity in the ‘third world’. And these aren’t countries in which they existed more than a hundred or two hundred years, let alone a thousand.

    I hate when people differentiate. Because there is no difference. If we weren’t actively fighting, do we honestly think that the Anglican Church wouldn’t issue death warrants?

  16. says

    The the title and subtitle of the Glenn Greenwald article is pretty awful (“the> New Atheists” etc.), but I don’t actually disagree with much in the article itself. He doesn’t seem to be engaging in the roundabout bashing of ‘New Atheism’ you criticise (I didn’t follow most of his links, so it may be true that the people he quotes favourably do), and also makes clear that criticising Islam is very much legitimate. He’ll even say about the specific individuals he attacks, foremost Harris:

    These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good.

    His seems to me to be an attack on Harris’ abuse of New Atheism for rationalising Neocon positions more than on New Atheism.

  17. Rich Woods says

    @PZ:

    But I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism.

    @Crissa #16:

    I hate when people differentiate. Because there is no difference. If we weren’t actively fighting, do we honestly think that the Anglican Church wouldn’t issue death warrants?

    We need only look back 450 years to see what Anglicanism was like. Obviously everything changes over time, but Islam was once more tolerant than Anglicanism was at its birth. Some branches of both major religions are still (and primarily) tolerant today; others are not. I think these labels are being used too broadly (so that like isn’t even being compared with like), and I don’t think it helps.

    I’d like to see all religious bases being considered as outmoded mythology which, weirdly, people once believed in. It’s one thing to call out the failings of a specific point of belief, but comparing this one against that one doesn’t seem to me to offer the same worthwhile end effect.

  18. =8)-DX says

    [sarcasm]Wow. People here are disagreeing with PZ! Oh noes I bet they’ll all be banhammered and ostracised![/sarcasm]
    (I’ve been responding to too many “FTB is PZ’s echo chamber” comments lately).

  19. Rich Woods says

    Banhammered? It’s worse than that: the diumvirate* might inflict us with pictures of bunnies!

    * Yeah, yeah…you can correct me on my Latin after I’m dead.

  20. barfy says

    OMG
    PZ’s comment, “no one is scarier than Cheney,” was not written as hyperbole.

    I didn’t like Cheney or his politics, but it is a dunderheaded statement like this that proves PZ’s Jejuneral credentials.
    There are many politicians alive today who are much scarier than Cheney. If I even have to name one to anybody reading this – forget it, you’re hopeless. Move on and play in the sandbox with the other children.
    Exactly what “murderous wars against whole peoples” did he engineer? Iraq? Afghanistan? What “whole peoples” did he want to murder?
    Was it the tens of millions of Muslims who were mostly interested in getting along with their neighbors? I’m pretty sure that Cheney had no designs on them.
    At least I know, via PZ, how to frame religious people…they’re “victims.” I might think that PZ would be nicer to those victims who encourage genital mutilation, prayer in school, work actively against women’s rights, etc. Or is his strategy to let the Horde descend on these victims with the loving cudgels of “fuckwit” and Monty Python icons to allow them to shake the oppressive tyranny of their stupidity?
    One of the all time dumbest posts ever.

  21. vaiyt says

    Islam, a especially vile religion, PZ? Really?

    Let me tell you the news. Muslims are perfectly capable of ignoring your “points of doctrine” when the circumstances are right.

    The Muslims in this neck of the woods haven’t caused even the tiniest fraction of the trouble the Evangelicals have. No protests, no honor killings, no trying to subvert discrimination laws, nothing. In fact, they could teach a thing or two about not shoving their spirituality on people’s faces to our Christians. I doubt you could make them start a jihad at gunpoint.

    Excuse me if I don’t swallow the idea that these people are somehow worse than a federal congressman that says black people are the cursed spawn of Noah, just because some other guys that happen to follow their religion are blowing themselves up half a world away.

    You have been contaminated with the Hitchens notion that Islam has something fundamental about it that makes it generate terrorists. You’re fucking wrong.

    Fuck you, PZ.

  22. says

    There are many politicians alive today who are much scarier than Cheney.

    In order to be scary, it’s not enough to have dangerous ideas; it also takes a determination, and power to implement them.

    There are many people alive who would be scarier than Cheney if they had half of the world’s weaponry at their disposal, but they don’t.

  23. says

    But I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism.

    Reminder: It’s Evangelicals in Africa that murder children under the pretense of hunting for ‘child witches’ (a phenomena that only occured when women started arming themselves, so as to stop being the witch du jour).

    Seriously, PZ, this isn’t fucking hard.

  24. Anthony K says

    There are many people alive who would be scarier than Cheney if they had half of the world’s weaponry at their disposal, but they don’t.

    Sam Harris may be one of those. Not because of his barbarous, savage, and vengeful perspectives, but because there’s only one person in the world whose opinion he appears willing to listen to, and that’s Sam Harris.

  25. Jacob Schmidt says

    Vaiyt

    Excuse me if I don’t swallow the idea that these people are somehow worse than a federal congressman that says black people are the cursed spawn of Noah, just because some other guys that happen to follow their religion are blowing themselves up half a world away.

    You’re not that clueless are you?

    Islam (the religion) is really shitty. Muslims (the people who follow islam) are a varied group. They are two different things.

    Rutee Katreya

    It’s Evangelicals in Africa that murder children under the pretense of hunting for ‘child witches’

    I don’t think Anglicanism is Evangelical.

  26. Island Adolescent says

    I’m sorry – I’m sorry – HOW exactly are we dividing the religion from the people who are practicing the religion again?

    If we take JUST the holy books and compare them, they are not that different at all, and are both filled with extreme grotesqueness.

    Islam is not especially vile relative to Christianity, not at all. But some Islamic societies happen to be. As has already been said, look at the Islamic populations in the US and look at some Christian ones in Africa. Well wow, with a totally different societal structure it seems like Christians are especially vile!

    I have to agree with the general consensus here: PZ is wrong on this.

    But fuck Sam Harris, yes.

  27. vaiyt says

    Why in the fucking fuck of fuckiness did I write Hitchens at 23? I made the post in a hurry, then realised I made the mistake on my way to the gym and couldn’t correct the post until I came back. It should read Harris.

    Hope that clears up any misunderstanding, and thank you.

  28. Jacob Schmidt says

    I should clarify:

    PZ is definitely labeling islam in far too general a way. It’s not that simple, and the core values are not that different from christianity. He wrong to compare islam as a whole to one specific liberal sect of christianity.

  29. Anthony K says

    So Christianity deserves us dicing it up into little bits of wrong, but Islam doesn’t?

    Are you seriously asking the man defending the man who suggested we should strip search people who look like Ben Stiller, just to be safe?

  30. ealloc says

    I find Harris’, Hitchen’s (and sometimes Dawkin’s) view to be very priviledged because they assume that any conflict we have with Muslim peoples must be their fault due to their ignorant religion, while ignoring the decades of our detrimental involvement in the middle east. There wouldn’t be any islamic terrorism if it weren’t for that.

    Islam isn’t a threat. Even though the people intending violence towards us are quite religious, religion is not the reason they are attacking us. Islam is not destroying our society. The ground zero mosque was no worse than a church, and the efforts against it were outright harassment.

  31. Jacob Schmidt says

    Are you seriously asking the man defending the man who suggested we should strip search people who look like Ben Stiller, just to be safe?

    Uhh… I’m not defending Harris (I assume that was Harris that said that?).

    Fuck Harris.

    And no, Rutee Katreya, that’s not what I meant (the miscommunication is my fault). You seemed to take Anglican to mean Evangelical. I made a knee jerk correction without actually thinking about what was being said. Sorry.

  32. vaiyt says

    @Jacob Schmidt

    Islam (the religion) is really shitty. Muslims (the people who follow islam) are a varied group. They are two different things.

    Islam doesn’t exist without Muslims. We talk about Islam because of the people who practice it. If the Quran were just a book, there would be no problem.

    I don’t see why criticism of Islam has to make it sound like there’s something atavically MORE WRONG with it. It’s another tool for good and shitty people alike to rationalize whatever they want.

  33. Anthony K says

    Uhh… I’m not defending Harris (I assume that was Harris that said that?).

    Sorry Jacob, I totally borked that. I was thinking a few quotes back in the discussion, from PZ’s OP, and I mistook Rutee’s response to be to that.

    (Either way, Rutee’s point stands: in general, why is the focus always on getting the details of particular flavours of Christianity exactly right, while incredible generalities about Islam or people who look like Ben Stiller are tossed about to score rhetorical fear points?)

    But I’m sorry for the implication you’re defending Harris, Jacob.

    This comment by PZ:

    But I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism

    is just fucking lazy, at best.

    And further, it works the other way just as well:

    But I would still say that Christianity as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Sufiism.

    This kind of laziness is particular to criticisms of Islam that prefice themselves with “I shouldn’t be afraid to say X about Y”.

    No, you shouldn’t, but it’s pre-empting the martyr mantle for yourself for being goddamn lazy and claiming it’s because you’re standing up for speech. It’s like starting a blog comment with “I know I’m going to get flamed for this, but…”

    It’s a shit tactic, and it’s lazy fucking fear-mongering.

  34. Jacob Schmidt says

    It’s another tool for good and shitty people alike to rationalize whatever they want.

    Which is why saying Islam is shitty isn’t the same as saying muslims are shitty. You’re right, PZ shouldn’t be treating Islam the way he is, but its not tantemount to generalizing about muslims.

  35. Jacob Schmidt says

    You know, Harris looks kinda like Ben Stiller.

    I remember him claiming that, because his racial profiling would target himself, he was totes not racist.

  36. canadiansteve says

    A big problem here is the interaction of culture, religion and economy in ways that reinforce negatives and make progress difficult. Countries that are progressive have developed cultures that support progressive policies over centuries of slow change that has gotten us to this point. Religious interpretations seem more connected to cultural norms than church/mosque attendance. This is why we see rapid integration and adoption of liberal values in children of immigrants in liberal democracies, whether their parents take them to church/mosque/temple regularly or not (unless they can maintain a closed community).
    For this reason I disagree that “Giving access to education and economic opportunities” is enough. In repressive cultures this just favours those in power even more as they will be the ones able to take advantage of these opportunities.
    And I totally disagree that there are no situations that call for military intervention. I’m not going to defend the recent US crapfest, but I do think that it is a tool that must be in the toolbox for international pressure to have any effect on a regime that is not acting in the interest of its population.

  37. chigau (unless...) says

    canadiansteve
    You make my head hurt.

    Countries that are progressive have developed cultures that support progressive policies over centuries of slow change that has gotten us to this point.

    developed … progresive

    … military intervention… I do think that it is a tool that must be in the toolbox for international pressure to have any effect on a regime that is not acting in the interest of its population.

    Really?
    Blowing up stuff?

  38. savpunk says

    Well, whether we’re lumping all Islamists together or not, all I know is I’m afraid to post anything on good old Facebook that’s anti-Islamic (the blog No Country For Women is full of wonderful posts that deserve to be posted and reposted, for instance) because my liberal friends will get theirs into a wad and start weeping that I hate Muslims, which as individuals I don’t, and the loony conservatives who don’t know me well but always manage to sneak through will post all sorts of pro-gun, pro-Christian, yee-haw, Jesus is king hate speech and I don’t have the energy or courage for either. That I’m an atheist and am posting such and such article or blog in the same spirit that I would post something against Christianity wouldn’t be considered. What gives rise to small, bitter chuckles is that I don’t fear Islam, I don’t fear Muslims, but I do fear the hoopla that would follow if I publicly announced I am indeed anti-Islam, since it is, by my last count, just another religion.

  39. canadiansteve says

    @Chigau

    that’s too bad your head is so delicate.

    Really?
    Blowing up stuff?

    Yeah, and killing people too. Not to be taken lightly at all under any circumstances. But were you actually trying to make a point? If so, what was it?

    @evilisgood

    Everybody knows that the best way to get regime to act in the interest of its population is to bomb the population!
    /sarcasm

    Yeah, because military intervention obviously means bombing civilians. Just because it’s been done wrong in the last decade doesn’t mean it can’t be done right you know.

    But I’ve got a better idea, send in a cappella peace choir! That’ll get people to be nice to each other!

    Yeah, I get that there are other issues in all cases, but there are times when the military option actually is the best one. (And times when it is a colossal fuck up….) In light of current events in the middle east it’s easy to point out how it can fail, but that’s not to say there will never be a time when military intervention is needed.
    Military intervention is never good. Innocent people always die. But there are times when not intervening is worse. Rwandan genocide rings a bell.

  40. chigau (unless...) says

    canadiansteve

    Yeah, because military intervention obviously means bombing civilians. Just because it’s been done wrong in the last decade doesn’t mean it can’t be done right you know.

    Sober-up before your next comment.

  41. canadiansteve says

    @chigau

    your contribution so far has been nothing. If you don’t agree then show why I’m wrong, or don’t bother commenting.

  42. tealviolence says

    All I can say, fuck all Abrahamic religions. I would like someone to explain who I need to respect in this context. I do not care anymore who your personal Abrahamic god is. I have had discussions with those who believe in some Abrahamic god and I have concluded, it is not worth it to discuss the validity of the noah flood when they can not understand the Gilgamesh flood. This from a islam part of abrahamic religion. I do not know how to make the argument, but it feels like creationist/intelligent design discussion where I feel trapped in a gish gallop.

  43. tealviolence says

    And yeah, this was a recent discussion, and still would be the same with any other part of the abrahamic religions. This was the first time to find a difference? No, still the dogma I heard with columbia baptists was the same. Columbia baptist being a weird offshoot of southern baptist.

  44. Aerik says

    Ugh.

    Being as we know that the effect of a good modern infrastructure is to lower strife and therefore violence across a nation’s various classes and ethnicities, you have to take that into account if you want to in any way measure the effect of religion on a nation’s tendendies towards violence.

    If you take Christians and isolate them in countries so poor and lacking in infrastructure as those in the middle east, they turn every bit as barbaric the second they’re a majority in a place.

    Fuck, look at the way Christians versus Muslims act in the USA. 99% of all terrorism here is committed by Christians. Abortion killings, arsons, lynching, hostages, mass murder, all that. If you’re going to ignore the effect of infrastructure and just measure in some way violence per capita, then by the numbers provided by the USA, Muslim tends to be the more peaceful of the two religions by quite a margin.

    PZ you seem to think for some reason that the Anglicanism of the modern day is different from that of the past. But it’s not. Whether Protestant or Catholic, Christianity has always been as cultist and violent as Islam. Watching Christians become less violent as modern infrastructure and social welfare grow is not a credit to the religion. It’s a credit to good nation building. They become better in spite of their religion, not because of it. Move ‘em somewhere else and BAM! inquisition all over again.

  45. Dunc says

    But there are times when not intervening is worse. Rwandan genocide rings a bell.

    Actually, France did intervene in the Rwandan genocide. They made it worse.

  46. Aerik says

    To clarify, PZ, you act as if modern nations have cured Christians of their cruelty, that if they returned to poor nations they’ll continue to at better. That’s just bunk.

  47. says

    Yeah, because military intervention obviously means bombing civilians. Just because it’s been done wrong in the last decade doesn’t mean it can’t be done right you know.

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but that is exactly what modern militaries are optimized for.

    Yeah, I get that there are other issues in all cases, but there are times when the military option actually is the best one.

    So your example is one where military intervention actively made things worse. Do you have any better examples?

    because my liberal friends will get theirs into a wad and start weeping that I hate Muslims,

    I sincerely hope that’s true, but I somewhat doubt it. Getting liberals to admit to problematic shit is like pulling teeth.

  48. says

    Also, the irony of this post by PZ, after declaring Golden MEan-ism wrong in the post regarding the open letter, is a little funny (Mostly saddening, though).

    Glenn may be wrong in pretending that Gnu Atheists are PARTICULARLY racist against middle easterners (This is a very, very common trait in western society, and Christians sure as fuck have their own prominent folks doing it without serious backlash from Christians. Also, I’m not sure it’s wrong, but I don’t really care), but that doesn’t for one second mean he’s even close to as wrong as harris. And honestly, I see no reason to make one’s primary concern that Gnu Atheism got tarred with a brush when he had the decency to peg some of its former and current leading lights. When Harris and Dawkins stop getting top billing, we’ll talk about how maybe New ATheism isn’t really flirting with islamophobia.

  49. says

    When Harris and Dawkins stop getting top billing, we’ll talk about how maybe New ATheism isn’t really flirting with islamophobia.

    Weren’t they already blacklisted?

  50. says

    We don’t get a pass on sexism in our community just because it’s also present in the wider culture. Islamophobia is also present in the wider culture and Greenwald has put forth a good case showing it’s present in atheism. It shouldn’t get a pass with us either. Or in this case a set of feeble equivocations that sound oddly similar to “yes, but” and “not all X” and other mansplaining. Even the attempt at the equal offense for everyone defense is poor form.

  51. Aerik says

    something just occurred to me.

    In the modern atheist and skeptic movements, the word ‘barbaric’ tends to almost only ever be used against Muslims. That’s interesting. Put that together with “desert people,” or “desert culture,” which supposedly is supposed to be paired up with any of the 3 Abrahamic religions, but only actually shows up in criticisms of Muslims.

    Ever notice that misogynists only tend to call women animals? And that racists tend to only call nonwhite people animalistic? eh? Seeing some parallels here? Ugh, go to a bastion of right-wing videos like liveleak.com and their favorite word this year for black people is ‘feral’. “desert people” sounds just like that. it’s obviously a popularized substitution for “sand nigger,” that’s what it seems like often enough.

    And so I notice that atheists/skeptics tend to call Islam “barbaric,” but never apply that label even to crusade/inquisition level xtianity. That’s interesting. Seems like the more brown the people one associates to a religion, the more subhuman they get caricatured.

  52. canadiansteve says

    @Rutee

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but that is exactly what modern militaries are optimized for.

    Yes, I am well aware of it. I fully argree modern militaries are not well equipped to deal with the kind of conflicts that we see in the world today. I would say that the biggest problem is how they are used by our politicians. The outcomes we get are largely predictable based on the approach. Especially in the US, but increasingly in Canada, the military is being used to meet commercial interests over humanitarian interests, and is being used to funnel money from taxpayers to wealthy individuals/corporations. This is why we need greater involvement of moral people on how and when our military intervenes, rather than blanket statements about there never being a military requirement.

    So your example is one where military intervention actively made things worse. Do you have any better examples?

    The point I’m making with Rwanda is that the world failed to prevent genocide when it was well known that it was about to occur. The fact that a poorly supplied and executed intervention was unsucessful doesn’t change the fact that a full and properly UN military mission could have and should have prevented the genocide.

    BTW I don’t think that countries like the US should be running around the world invading other countries in the name of democracy, I just realize the reality that having military power for use in a worst case scenario is truly necessary. My comments regarding blowing things up, innocent people dying – these relate to being honest about what happens in conflict, and why whe should take it seriously, it is NOT that I think these things are acceptable outcomes.

  53. thumper1990 says

    @vaiyt

    Islam doesn’t exist without Muslims. We talk about Islam because of the people who practice it. If the Quran were just a book, there would be no problem.

    Islam is an idea, Muslims are people. Islam is an awful, harmful idea. That is not an Islamophobic statement. I hate Christianity, but I don’t hate all Christians.

    It is perfectly legitimate to make a distinction between an idea and the people duped into following it, providing you recognise the various and disparate degrees to which they do follow it. The Muslims in your area are moderates who disregard many of the ideas that the fundementalists follow, and that’s good; but it doesn’t mean that the ideas the fundementalists follow aren’t a part of Islam. In the same way, many Christians disregard the ideas in Leviticus, but that doesn’t mean that those ideas aren’t part of Christianity. It just means that the majority of Christanitys followers are better than the awful ideas they pay lip service to. Ditto Muslims.

    Someone above mentioned the role of poverty and lack of infrastructure in the creation of fundementalism, and they’re right. Fundementalism isn’t a product of Islam, it’s a product of the intersection of a number of factors, one of which is undeniably Islam.

  54. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I have to go with those agreeing with Greenwald – although not with by any means everything in the articles he linked to; and with the objection (to which PZ has conceded@7) to comparing “Islam” with “Anglicanism” – since the latter but not the former has an institutional form. Both Christianity and Islam have inherent features that make them likely to be harmful (misogyny, homophobia, authoritarianism, irrationalism); but both can be and are interpreted in a wide range of ways: Nizari Ismailism, for example looks distinctly preferable to some varieties of Christianity, and indeed of Anglicanism. As far as the historical record is concerned, it’s hard to say whether Islam or Christianity comes out worse overall; in terms of current performance I’d say Islam is on average (even) more misogynistic and homophobic, while Christianity is more acutely dangerous, given the distinct possibility that fundamentalist Christians will get their hands on the USA’s nuclear arsenal.

    I’ve never used the description “New Atheist” of myself IIRC, but I’ve certainly used that of “gnu atheist”; even in this jokey form, I now find myself too uncomfortable, given some of the most prominent of those I’d be associating myself with – Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins – to use it any more.

  55. Dee Phlat says

    Your summary is a breath of fresh air, PZ. Personally, radical nationalism is, and has been for a long time, far more dangerous than radical religion. And, in a sense, Hitchens and Harris are religious fanatics, but for the state religion. The reasons they cite for justifying mass murder are as dubious as saying a vengeful god requires sacrifice.

  56. says

    Weren’t they already blacklisted?

    When, and where? The RDF is still on the sidebar, even. And that’s still a ‘maybe’ even if they actually, factually could do no more as full time atheist activists, because they’re not the alpha and omega of all racism in the atheist movement.

    The point I’m making with Rwanda is that the world failed to prevent genocide when it was well known that it was about to occur. The fact that a poorly supplied and executed intervention was unsucessful doesn’t change the fact that a full and properly UN military mission could have and should have prevented the genocide.

    Do you have evidence to support the proposition that this would actually work?

    It is perfectly legitimate to make a distinction between an idea and the people duped into following it, providing you recognise the various and disparate degrees to which they do follow it. The Muslims in your area are moderates who disregard many of the ideas that the fundementalists follow, and that’s good; but it doesn’t mean that the ideas the fundementalists follow aren’t a part of Islam.

    Why isn’t the moderates’ version also a part of Islam or Christianity?

  57. says

    It’s very easy to opine about the “necessity of military intervention” and the unfortunate and inevitable tragedy of civilian casualties when it’s not your town being bombed into the stone age, or your family among the dead.

    This, however,

    modern militaries are not well equipped to deal with the kind of conflicts that we see in the world today. I would say that the biggest problem is how they are used by our politicians. The outcomes we get are largely predictable based on the approach. Especially in the US, but increasingly in Canada, the military is being used to meet commercial interests over humanitarian interests, and is being used to funnel money from taxpayers to wealthy individuals/corporations.

    We agree on this.

  58. tiberiusbeauregard says

    How do we destroy Islam? Not by terrorizing Muslims, but by respecting them as people and giving them access to the same economic and educational opportunities that we have.
    The same old anti-imperial fairy tale of the helpless and downtrodden masses that can’t help but to flee from their hunger and dullness into religious violence?

    I never found this to be credible, given 3 simple observations:

    1) Several societies which already were on their best way to prosperity and freedom suddenly fell prey to Islam.

    Looking at the recent historiy of societies like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, even Malaysia and Indonesia had adopted liberal and capitalist policies and were seen as being on a good way to become members of the “free world” but which very abruptly changed their ways as soon as the saudi-backed pan-arabism and -islamism had reached their borders.

    And while Iran has a different recent history (especially in its anti-attitude towards arabs, which persians see as useless throwbacks), it’s absolutely amazing how a liberal pre-79 Iran could become a totalitarian hell hole within the shortest possible amount of time.

    2) The richest muslim countries are the backbone of expansionist and terrorist Islam.

    The financial support and ideological basis of global muslim terrorism are exact these areas, in which huge parts of the population is entitled to riches by birth, where “poverty” is measured by the number of foreign slaves you have in your household and where the rather few real poor people still live a comparably luxurious life when being compared to really poor countries in the middle east, for example.

    3) So are muslim terrorist leaders

    Wealthy by birth, well educated (often in western countries) and additionally well funded by clerically influenced networks – that’s what the upper levels of international muslim terrorism were and are. From Abu Nidal, over al-Zawahiri to Bin Laden…

    Islamic terrorism always was a rich man’s game.

    But I also agree that Islam cannot be considered one society. That point is taken.
    You forget Islam’s magical abilities.

    Whenever muslims demand privileges, they declare themselves to be an “ummah”, a united people, just to shatter into 1000 different little pieces as soon as someone tries to hold them accountable for the next gruelsome crime that was commited in the name, and out Islam.

    So it’s pretty much left to us if we want to play that silly little game of hide’n’seek with them, or not.

  59. says

    Looking at the recent historiy of societies like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, even Malaysia and Indonesia had adopted liberal and capitalist policies and were seen as being on a good way to become members of the “free world” but which very abruptly changed their ways as soon as the saudi-backed pan-arabism and -islamism had reached their borders.

    Malaysia and Indonesia ARE members of the free world (and you can’t seriously be suggesting that pan arabism is behind any supposed backsliding on their part). Egypt was going nowhere prior to the revolutions, and I haven’t seen cause to think the whole thing’s gone to pot, although it’s not as good as we’d hoped prior.

    And while Iran has a different recent history (especially in its anti-attitude towards arabs, which persians see as useless throwbacks), it’s absolutely amazing how a liberal pre-79 Iran could become a totalitarian hell hole within the shortest possible amount of time.

    You’re referring to the autocracy under a US-backed puppet as a ‘liberal’ place, are you?

    2) The richest muslim countries are the backbone of expansionist and terrorist Islam.

    Ah, I forgot, Saudi Arabia is funding terrorists who’s goal is to knock over Saudi Arabia. Also, are you seriously trying to pretend that the majority of Saudis are as well off as the majority of europeans -particularly west europeans?

  60. vaiyt says

    The Muslims in your area are moderates who disregard many of the ideas that the fundementalists follow, and that’s good; but it doesn’t mean that the ideas the fundementalists follow aren’t a part of Islam.

    Let’s not go this “well, YOU don’t generalize” path, shall we? I didn’t say anywhere that we should disregard the fundamentalists.

    What irritates me about PZ’s post is how it sounds like a very irritating part of Harris’ rhetoric: the idea that Muslims are rounding up atheists and throwing acid at women because Islam is THE MORE EVILER RELIGION which is MORE WRONGER than all other incoherent messes of Bronze Age morality. The story about our Muslim community was an anecdote meant to illustrate that Islam is just like anybody else’s religion, and it would do good for us to not go down that route.

  61. says

    #58: I think it is an adjective often applied to Islam, because we’re often talking about their barbaric practices. Barbarians get called barbarians.

    But there could be a bias, I agree. So I checked my most recent uses of the term: I applied “barbaric” to wolf hunters, atheists, Abrahamic religionists (esp. Catholics) as a whole, circumcision, Christian anti-abortionists, and here I called out the hypocrisy of an American Lt. Col. for calling Muslims “barbaric”. So part of it is also selective memory.

  62. harvardmba says

    I’m not sure why PZ is saying both wrong both right, when his outlook is much closer to Greenwald’s outlook, GG also being an atheist. Although the Salon piece is not of the caliber of GG’s, the byline indicates there’s a recent groundswell surrounding this issue and the Salon piece was part of it.

    PZ’s comment: “How do we destroy Islam? Not by terrorizing Muslims, but by respecting them as people and giving them access to the same economic and educational opportunities that we have.”

    I would imagine GG agrees completely, and that’s the point of his piece. His assertions about Harris are accurate and evidenced. Trying to split hairs over this is not effective if one wants to stop the vile promotion of a brutal foreign policy through the guise of rational atheism. After Hitchens, Harris has long been exhibit A in this scene, and although GG talks about the “new atheists”, he’s clearly focusing on Harris — as he should. If the “new atheists” want to increase credibility along the lines of PZ’s comment, they’d do well to cut Harris loose and step in with a more enlightened dialogue.

  63. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Yawn, why should anybody take harvardbrat seriously? It won’t defend any solid rebuttals of its fuckwittery. It can’t make a good cogent analysis. All it can do is gripe about PZ. PZ should have a banhammer categrory or repeated on-off posts who complain, but won’t defend themselves.

  64. Anthony K says

    I’m probably biased because I generally agree with harvardmba’s comment, but it at least had substance and wasn’t simply bile pointed at PZ and leftists in general, Nerd.

  65. chigau (unless...) says

    I’m not convinced that’s the real harvardmba.
    There was no mention of ivory towers or vivisection.

  66. christoferpierson says

    Sam Harris focuses on the evils of Islam because he is, if not outright Zionist, at least sympathetic to Zionism.

    Talk about a touchy issue for atheists (and nonatheists)!

    But let’s be real, here. You and Sam and Richard Dawkins make valid points about Islam’s most troglodyte tendencies, but Harris goes so far as to overlook Palestinian Arabs’ legitimate grievances against Israel–Israel’s original sin, one might say, of hoodwinking Palestinian Arabs out of their land and installing a nuclear-backed security state in place of it. He denies the political aspects of the conflict and seems to want to pretend it’s all about religion. Well, religion does undergird it–on both sides. In effect, Sam is willing to bash terrorist tactics justified by Islam in defense of a theocratic society justified by Judaism.

    Are Islam and Judaism equally bad? Is that a valid question? But should atheists be willing to defend or even just overlook theocracy because they find jihad less palatable? I don’t know. I think more discussion about Israel and Judaism’s sins/hypocrisies should be on the table in any case.