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.