Glenn Greenwald has a great long piece tearing Sam Harris’s ideas apart. It was so satisfying to see my own opinions reflected with such clarity and reason — I have to agree with it all. Read it. It is a thing of beauty.
That said, what I did say in my emails with Harris – and what I unequivocally affirm again now – is not that Harris is a “racist”, but rather that he and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism. I’ve long believed this to be true and am glad it is finally being dragged out into open debate. These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good. But it is past time that the darker aspects of their worldview receive attention.
Whether Islamophobia is a form of “racism” is a semantic issue in which I’m not interested for purposes of this discussion. The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me. But “racism” is not my claim here about Harris. Irrational anti-Muslim animus is.
Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the 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. In this case, Harris’ own words, as demonstrated below, are his indictment.
Exactly so. I don’t like Islam, I don’t like any religion, and I think all of them do harm to their adherents…but I don’t think the solution is to declare war on people who believe. I’m also saying that as a scientist and someone who has long identified as a New Atheist (although, believe me, the leadership of that movement is putting a serious strain on the relationship), the kind of ideas espoused by Harris are harmful to the propagation of a diverse, world-wide, tolerant atheism.
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
Islam does have unique properties; Judaism is unique; Christianity is very, very special. You can always single out unusual properties of any religion and make them a basis for universal condemnation of the whole faith, but unfortunately, Harris seems to think only Islam is a particularly dangerous force.
I have to ask, are only American Muslims piloting the drones blowing up civilians in the Middle East? If Islam is a cult of death, perhaps we should compare casualties: who has killed more, American Christians or Iranian Muslims? That we have sterilized and dehumanized war to the point of being grainy video images of fleeing blobs seen through the camera of a guided bomb, while some Muslims revel in getting up close and personal and chopping heads off, does not imply that one is more death culty than the other.
I also do not want atheism to be used as a justification for barbaric behavior, such as torture or bombing campaigns.
When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam – particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign – then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted. That’s true of Dawkins’ proclamation that “[I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” It’s true of Hitchens’ various grotesque invocations of Islam to justify violence, including advocating cluster bombs because “if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too”. And it’s true of Harris’ years-long argument that Islam poses unique threats beyond what Christianity, Judaism, and the other religions of the world pose.
Most important of all – to me – is the fact that Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture (“there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like ‘water-boarding’ may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary”); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim adversaries (“In their analyses of US and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. . . . there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah”); to anti-Muslim profiling (“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it”); to state violence (“On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that ‘liberals are soft on terrorism.’ It is, and they are”).
I am also peeved every time an atheist shouts that Islam is an existential threat, therefore we shouldn’t waste our time on trivial problems at home.
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. Even if that weren’t true – and it is – spending one’s time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly:
“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.
“So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”
It’s a devastating critique, and good to see it delivered so well — the foaming-at-the-mouth mad ravings of Chris Hedges are nowhere to be seen — and he doesn’t succumb to that Hedges-style condemnation of atheism as a whole.
One last point: I absolutely do not believe that Harris – or, for that matter, Hitchens – is representative of all or even most atheists in this regard. The vast majority of atheists I know find such sentiments repellent. They are representative only of themselves and those who share these views, not atheists generally.
#NotAllAtheists. Yay. But we all still have a responsibility to stand up against the right-wing neo-cons who are cloaking themselves under the umbrella of atheism.
I’m hoping Harris retires to doing nothing but touting New Agey pseudo-spiritualism. There’s good money there, I’m sure.