Are you an atheist? Better be a humanist.

Dear Alom Shaha,

Thank you for sending me your ‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook’. I haven’t started reading the book. But I’ve listened to your interview today. I understand what you have said.

I was thinking of Sam Harris’s recent article while listening to you. You probably have read the article. Sam Harris said TSA screeners at airports should not waste time screening old people, children, and others who do not look like Muslims and they should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim and they should be honest about it. Sam Harris’s Muslim-profile-program is more dangerous than the notorious Homeland Security program in the Bush era!

I never feel bad when I am asked to take my shoes, my belts, my jewelry, my scarves, my coats etc. off and to go through metal detectors repeatedly. I feel safe when I see people of all ages, of all colors, of all ethnicities, of all nationalities,of all genders, and of all beliefs get screened. I feel safe when I see a 2-year-old baby’s sandals and an 85-year-old wheelchair lady’s orthopedic footwear are removed for screening, for these are the things terrorists would think of using as shoe-bombs because these are the things people would not be suspicious about. It will scare the crap out of me if I see only ‘Muslims and Muslim-looking people’ are going through security screening and others are free to board a plane. If I see that Sam Harris without being properly screened is going to board the plane I am supposed to board, I would most likely decide to cancel my flight because I would be afraid of him. I would think that he accidentally carried a gun, and he would accidentally shoot people on the plane and I would accidentally die. I do not want to take any risk. Who knows, for he might get suddenly mentally sick and start thinking that all ‘Muslim looking people‘ are terrorists or they all are Osama Bin Laden and it is better to finish them off. I would not trust Muslim looking people, and I would also not trust Christian looking people, Jewish looking people, Hindu looking people, Jain looking people, Buddhist looking people, or any other religious looking people! How would I know about their plans!They may have some secret plans! Muslims have been terrorizing and killing people in many parts of the world. It is Muslims who become suicide bombers these days, but faith-heads of any religion can become suicide bombers. I would not trust even die hard atheists and die hard atheist looking people. They might think of blowing up the plane, because the plane is full of fucking believers! You never know.

We both look like South Asian. South Asian Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs,Parsis, Jews, Bahá’ís, Bramhas, Animists as well as atheists look more or less the same. How would Sam Harris identify Muslims? It will really be a tough job for him or anyone else. If we are identified as ‘Muslim looking people’, then we will have to spend more time going through rigid security checks than Sam Harris inasmuch as he does not look Muslim. But we are not any less godless than Sam Harris! The question of identification of Muslims is very much related to the color of skin.

It is true that fear, hatred, and hostility of some Western people toward Islam and Muslims helped to make Muslims all over the world more religious, more fundamentalists, and more terrorists. We who were born into Muslim families but became atheists and have been fighting Muslim fundamentalism for decades know very well how difficult this fight has become.

We know there is a conflict. But the conflict is not between the West and Islam. Or West and East, or Christianity/Judaism/Hinduism and Islam. The conflict is between secularism and fundamentalism, between rational logical minds and irrational blind faith, between innovation and tradition, between humanism and barbarism, between the future and the past, between the people who value freedom and the people who do not.

Atheists need more enlightenment to become humanists. I dream of a day when all atheists will be free from racism, misogyny,homophobia,megalomania and other silly things.




  1. Graham Martin-Royle says

    I’m not too sure I understand this. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in gods. That’s it. That’s all that being an atheist is. Can an atheist also be a humanist? Why not? I could be a capitalist atheist, a train spotting atheist, a stamp collecting atheist. As long as I continue to disbelieve in gods, I can be anything I want and still be an atheist. That includes being a humanist if I so desire.

    • says

      What I am trying to say is that some atheists are racists and misogynists and they are not nice,kind and humane. It would be good if atheists become feminists and humanists. I think atheism is about not believing god, and humanism is much more than that.

      I just don’t feel like calling those rapists and robbers humanists only because they do not believe in god.

  2. says

    That’s what Taslima said. “Atheists need more enlightenment to become humanists.” Atheists aren’t necessarily humanists, but more enlightened atheists are. In other words, humanism combines atheism with enlightenment.

  3. Emilie says


    You write about becoming enlightened.

    Perhaps you could start by reading Sam’s blogs on this topic more carefully. As it stands, what you’ve written here so badly characterizes what he’s written that it deserves no further response or attention from anyone.

    • Ikkyu says


      Your comment does not explain why you think that Ms. Nasreen’s article is not a fair response to Mr. Harris. So there is even less reason to take your comment seriously.

    • Carlie says

      She is by far not the only one criticizing Harris’ position and writings on this, and does a good job of it.

  4. says

    Who knows he might get suddenly mentally sick and start thinking all ‘Muslim looking people‘ are terrorists and they are all Osama Bin Laden and it is better to finish them off.

    First I laughed, becuase it is funny. Then I shuddered because it is true. This is in fact what people do sometimes.

    Thank you for writing this, thank you for kicking Sam Harris ass.

  5. A says

    Atheism doesn’t entail having children read a book about all the ways infidels are inferior, so I doubt Sam Harris will suffer that delusion. There are reasons messianic believers are more likely to be morally compromised. It’s not “pre”- judicial when there aren’t any examples of violent “secular humanist” terrorism. You are starting with the nihilistic view that any human could go insane at any moment, and must be proven sane. Rather, it should be assumed that humans are sensible creatures until noted otherwise, such as carrying solidity with despicable groups via similar religious acknowledgments. How does a secularist know a believer, who brings faith without evidence, in an afterlife cares more about the wellbeing of this world than the next?

  6. Brownian says

    Atheism doesn’t entail having children read a book about all the ways infidels are inferior, so I doubt Sam Harris will suffer that delusion.

    There are a lot of ways people might come to view others as inferior, besides having a book to outline them. This should be evident in the fact that many atheists are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. (I mean, did you really need that pointed out to you?)

    Sam Harris has decided that Muslims are less deserving of the rights that he and others have, based on the actions of some of their religious compatriots. So he’s already shown that he thinks they’re inferior.

    • A says

      Being that the most common source of bigotry is faith in scripture, I find the phrase “many atheists” not only incredulously ad hominem but downright fallacious. Humans who profess faith in Islam are not inhuman, but they are making claims beyond the capabilities of one. According to religious assertion, any mathematical and secular explanation of the universe by observation and evidence is insufficient without application of a specific definition of faith

  7. Clydey says

    You have successfully set up a number of strawmen. Firstly, Sam said that people like him should also be profiled. Secondly, he did not once say that only people who look like Muslims should be screened.

    Did you actually read his blog carefully? The point was that some people deserve greater scrutiny than others. That does not mean everyone except Arabs will stroll onto a plane without a second glance. Can you imagine how frustrating it is to have someone twist your arguments and then spread those misconceptions?

    • Matt Penfold says

      Why did you fail to mention Harris has not bothered to explain how someone looks like a Muslim. He has what he thinks is the brilliant idea of concentrating on screening Muslims, but cannot tell anyone how we can who is a Muslim by looking at them.

      Maybe you can help out here. What non-changeable physical characteristic marks someone out as being Muslim ?

      • Clydey says

        Are you really suggesting that you would be unable to point out who is likely to be Muslim? Such intellectual dishonesty borders on being offensive.

        • Matt Penfold says

          So tell me, what do Muslims look like ? Remember, it must be a physical characteristic that cannot be changed.

          Do keep in mind the overwhelming majority of Muslins are not Arabs. There are around 300 million Arabs, but around 1.5 billion Muslims.

          What is offensive is your idiotic idea that people can look “muslim”.

          • Clydey says

            Ok, let’s approach this differently. You have a white man from New York and an Arab man from Saudi Arabia. Which one is more likely to me a Muslim? Is one more likely than the other?

          • Matt Penfold says

            Oh dear.

            Not really thinking this through are you ?

            What part of non-chargeable physical characteristic unique to all Muslims do you not understand ? If you only select people who look Arab you are missing the vast majority of Muslims, and so your system will fail.

            I have explained this to you once. I will try again. There are 300 million Arabs, of whom around 90% are Muslims. There are around 1.5 billion Muslims. Therefore most Muslims are not Arabs, and so your considering only Arabs will not do what you claim it will do.

          • Clydey says

            I was giving you an example, so don’t get ahead of yourself. The profile would obviously be broad. Indeed, Sam included himself.

            Further to your point, are you suggesting that terrorists would go to the trouble of whitening their skin?

            Now, stop evading and answer my question please. I know exactly why you are evading, incidentally. By answering, you will either have to be intellectually dishonest or concede that you profile.

          • Matt Penfold says

            You really do not seem to understand that Muslims come with every variety of skin colour there is.

            Here is a little test for you. What is the most populous country with a majority Muslim population. Just to help you out, it is nowhere the Middle-East.

            To help you understand even more, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is British, with a white mother and a black father who was born in Jamaica. The people who carried out the Bali bombings were Indonesian. Chechen Islamic terrorists are white. One of those who carried out 7/7 attacks on the London Undergroud was afro-carribean.

            Now what you need to do is tell us what non-changeable characteristic they have all in common that marks them out as being Muslims. Note that one of them will also have looked Christian, since Reid converted from Christianity to Islam.

            You supported Harris is his claim this could be done. So far you have been unable to do so, but that must change.

        • Clydey says

          You continue to miss the point. No one is suggesting that it is possible to identify every single Muslim based purely on their appearance. If anyone has suggested that, by all means link me to that claim. I haven’t seen it, nor would I endorse it. The point is that it is possible to tell who is likely to be Muslim in many cases, but certainly not in all cases. Do you deny that you’re probably going to be correct in guessing that a given Arab person is also a Muslim?

          And you needn’t lecture me on demographics. I am simply offering an example. I’m not saying that all Arabs are Muslims, nor am I saying that most Muslims are Arabs. I am just giving you an example.

          Please answer my simple question. You see an Arab man and decide to guess his religious affiliation, if any. Are you really going to argue that he’s as likely to be a Christian as he is a Muslim?

          • Matt Penfold says

            Yes they have. Harris made just that claim.

            Here are his exact words:

            anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim

            You also made the claim. Your back-tracking is noted, as is your wilful refusal to actually tell is how we can tell who is a Muslim just by looking at them. Unless and until you are willing to do that there is no point in further discussion. Given you have taken to lying there is not much point anyway.

          • Clydey says

            I haven’t backtracked, and you have completely misinterpreted Sam. How does what he said translate to, “All Muslims can be identified based on appearance”? The point he was making is that some can be identified based on appearance. It would be absurd to claim that all Muslims have the same features. You could be as white as a ghost and be Muslim, as Sam has already pointed out. Read carefully: based on appearance, it is possible to identify who is likely to be Muslim in some cases.

            You keep asking me to point out what features all Muslims have in common, when I have never claimed that this was possible. However, it just so happens that many people who subscribe to Islam do have distinct features and/or come from certain areas of the world. What has been lost in all of this is that profiling entails more than simply looking at the person. There are all sorts of details that might indicate a person’s religious affiliation, which would all be readily available.

          • mynameischeese says

            “You see an Arab man and decide to guess his religious affiliation, if any. Are you really going to argue that he’s as likely to be a Christian as he is a Muslim?”

            You know that there’s Christians and Jews living in the Middle East, right? Along with a whole host of other religions.

            Then there’s the niggling little problem that Arabs often pass as white. An example of this, Sam Harris, who is of Jewish descent, but can pass as white (which is why he includes himself in the ‘bullseye’ of people who should be profiled).

            And then if we’re only profiling middle eastern Muslims, we’re going to miss all the black Muslims and all the white Muslims from places like Bosnia. We’re also going to miss the IRA, the republicans who want to commit acts of terrorism to bring down the IRS, the unabomber, the neo nazis, Norwegian guys who want to kill Norwegian kids to get back at the Muslims, south american drug cartels, somalian pirates, etc etc.

            Pretty soon it becomes clear that 99% of the population can be considered capable of an act of terrorism/air rage/temporary insanity. And the other 1% (kindly old ladies, innocent kids) can easily be tricked into bringing something dangerous on board. Then it becomes clear that profiling is a fairly useless security method.

          • Clydey says

            So basically you didn’t bother reading my post and decided to construct some strawmen. When did I say that we would only concentrate on Middle Eastern people? Please, quote me. I said I was giving an example. Naturally, you refused to answer my question. The other side continue to evade the question.

          • mynameischeese says

            Ok, I’ll answer your question: If I saw Sam Harris at an airport and didn’t know his religion, I’d assume he was Jewish.

          • mynameischeese says

            Also, if I take *your* “example” to its logical conclusion, that’s not me constructing a strawman; that’s you constructing a crap argument.

          • Clydey says

            You didn’t answer my question. I don’t recall asking you about Sam Harris, so you evaded again.

            And you did construct a number of strawmen. The fact that you didn’t even properly address the charge is telling. I explained my position repeatedly and stated explicitly that Arab people were not the only people who should be profiled. Here, I’ll even give you a quote from one of my posts that demonstrates your intellectual dishonesty.

            “That does not mean everyone except Arabs will stroll onto a plane without a second glance.”

          • mynameischeese says

            I’m not evading the question. Sam Harris is of Arab descent (specifically, Jewish). He looks Jewish. Thus why he included himself as someone who should be profiled. So I’m answering your question. If I saw an Arab who looked like Sam Harris, I’d guess that his religion would be Jewish.

            And of course, I’d be wrong since he’s an atheist.

            I’d love if we could be having this conversation in Palestine. I could get a bunch of Palestinians to dress western and you could try to guess which is a Jew, which a Muslim, which a Christian, and which a Druze. I’d be willing to bet big money that you’d fail.

          • Clydey says

            So Sam looks like a typical Arab man, then? It’s clear that you are doing everything possible to avoid answering the question. You are lying to yourself if you say that you couldn’t identify who in a crowd is most likely to be Muslim. It is pure, shameful intellectual dishonesty and you know it is.

    • kevinalexander says

      Imagine if you could invent a magic machine that could tell a Muslim 100% at the airport and started using it.

      How could the Muslims not notice and become enraged that they were being singled out? You’d only create more terrorists.

      Sam Harris. How is it that the smartest people think of the stupidest things?

      • Clydey says

        Ok, this is interesting. Unwittingly, you have made Sam’s point for him. Answer this, if you would be so kind. If white people were being singled out, how much more terrorism would you expect to see in reaction to their being profiled?

        • Kevin Alexander says


          White people are not being singled out that’s my point.

          By dividing the world into us and them the problem can never be resolved. We are all in this together. Sam can’t get his head around this idea. He can’t stop thinking that terrorists are some kind of alien species that we can test for. But they are us.

        • mynameischeese says

          “If white people were being singled out, how much more terrorism would you expect to see in reaction to their being profiled?”

          Let’s take a real historical example of this with a real live group of white people: Irish people during The Troubles.

          When Irish people were being singled out by the British in an attempt to crack down on the IRA, it led to more terrorism. The IRA used British prejudice against Irish people as a recruitment tool.

          • Clydey says

            Really, you’re likening that to being profiled at an airport? Words fail me.

          • mynameischeese says

            Why? You don’t think Irish people were profiled at airports during the troubles?

          • Clydey says

            It had nothing to do with profiling. At the risk of sounding like John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. You’re comparing profiling at airports to rampant, severe forms of discrimination.

          • mynameischeese says

            So you don’t think American Muslims face other forms of discrimination besides profiling at airports?

          • Clydey says

            Of course they do. They’re hardly the most seriously discriminated against, however. Let’s take gay people as an example. Do you think we would face a sudden gay terrorist threat if they were profiled at airports?

          • says

            This comparison raises complex issues that muddy the waters. It is difficult to quantify and compare the kinds of discrimination faced by two different minority groups. (I say this as someone who is both gay and a member of a racial minority.) I faced discrimination in school as a result of being gay and ethnic. However, I feel that in everyday life racial discrimination is more common because people can’t tell I’m gay just by looking, but they notice my skin colour right away.

            Sadly, there are no majority-gay nations. Suppose that there was a Queer bloc, and that the US had a history of meddling in those countries, taking sides, waging wars, arming gay extremist groups and so on. Suppose that there is an ongoing confict in the Queer bloc between Transgenderia and Cisland, in which the US has consistently supported one side. Recently, the US waged a ten year war in Queeristan and Gaytopia, killing tens of thousands of gay men, women and children (civilians) and desecrating gay holy sites. The US continues to occupy Queeristan and Gaytopia, using their overwhelming military force, despite resistance from the locals and guerilla attacks from rogue homosexualists (who are branded terrorists for resenting foreign occupation of their country). Gay people can be arrested, held for years and tortured, without charges being brought against them or the opportunity for a fair trial (this happened to an Australian man, David Hicks, who was held for five years without charges or a trial because he was allegedly training with terrorists in Pakistan). All gay people in the US are now under suspicion of being rebels. Their phone calls can be monitored, and a trip to any majority-gay country to visit their relatives can result in their imprisonment (this happened to another Australian called Mamdouh Habib).

            Under these conditions, the chances of a gay terrorist attack would be much higher.

            I don’t think you understand how enraging and humiliating profiling can be… Those of us who belong to minority groups are constantly being reminded that we are not wanted, we are dangerous, we are foreign, we are not welcome – in our own fucking homes. Almost every time my family and I travel, we are chosen for a “random bomb check” or security check. This is not a big enough sample size, but all the airport security personnel who’ve screened me have been white and I’m sure they were using their discretion.

            I belong to an ethnic group – Tamil – that is associated with terrorism in Sri Lanka. If I were picked on because of this characteristic and singled out from other Australians, I would rapidly grow to resent it. Being Tamil is actually a source of fondness to me. I associate it with my family, my sense of home, poetry, literature, music, dance, beauty, home-cooked meals, my grandfather teaching me to write the curly letters, my grandmother wearing a sari and sitting in her favourite chair or cooking in her giant wok… Some people, however, would associate my background with suicide bombs and machine guns, and punish me for it.

            If you treat innocent people like criminals, they may turn into them.

          • mynameischeese says


            Queer bloc, Transgenderia, Cisland, Gaytopia?! LOL! You are my hero. Let me know if you ever have a book out or your own chat show. I will buy it!

  8. F says

    I feel safe when other people of all ages, of all colors,ethnicity and nationality, of all genders, and of all beliefs get screened too.

    In the US? The TSA? If you feel safer, know that this is only a feeling, and it is brought about by their security theater having its desired effect.

    Screening, of course, should be equal-opportunity. No argument from me there.

  9. says

    Primary aspect of Harris’s comments that got me was the conflation beteween race and religion. Personally, I’m just not able to tell what a Muslim looks like. I have been in China, and the people coming in and out of the Mosques looked pretty oriental to me. The Black Panthers (yes I remember them) looked, well, black. The people here that I see that are ‘brown’ in colour might be going into a mosque, a christian church, a synagogue, or a pub. Just as the people frequenting any of those places might be black, brown, yellow, red, beige, pinkish, white, or kind of splotchy all over. Correlating race and religion makes no sense to me.

    Maybe I’m just dumb, but if I was going to profile a Muslim, I really wouldn’t know where to start.

    • Matt Penfold says

      Well this is the crux of the issue.

      I have asked defenders of Harris just how Muslims can be identified by looking at them. Most just ignored the question. One did answer by suggesting, in all seriousness, that security personnel look at the knees of passengers and assume that anyone with dirt on their knees is assumed to be a Muslim until proven otherwise. That most Muslims pray using a prayer mat seemed to be news to this person.

      Harris of course is just ignoring the question.

      • says

        This is so funny. I look like South Asian. South Asian Hindus, Muslims, Christian, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs,Parsis, Jewish,Bahá’í, Brahmos, Animists, Atheists look more or less the same.

        Sam Harris would probably pull society back to the dark ages and ask everyone to mention his/her religion in the passport!

  10. Gregory in Seattle says

    So being supportive of human liberty means bullying everyone into believing and acting as ordered?

    Now what does that remind me of…?

  11. Ray says

    “Atheists need more enlightenment to become humanists. I dream of a day when all atheists would be free from racism, misogyny, homophobia, megalomania and other silly problems. ”

    WTF? I am an atheist but I am none of those other things. They are not equated with atheism. I did not expect this kind of generalization from you.

    I think you should reword that to say “I dream of a day when all people would be free from racism, misogyny, homophobia, megalomania and other silly problems.” If you are looking for racism, misogyny, homophobia, megalomania and other silly problems start by looking at the religions of the world.

  12. Porco Dio says

    It is true that fear, hatred, and hostility of some Western people toward Islam and Muslims help made Muslims all over the world more religious, more fundamentalists, and more terrorists.

    Besides the fact that this generalisation works neither from the “western” side nor the “muslim” side you forget one very important thing: It’s called “history.”

    That’s right! Fear, hatred and hostility have been around for millennia. Are you implying that this little extra anti-muslim antagonism in the last decade has caused a paradigm-shift in the muslim world and magically made muslims more nasty?

    Please explain yourself. It seems bad form for a humanist to blame the “west” for “muslim” nastiness.

  13. seditiosus says

    This is a great post. The kind of profiling Harris is advocating here scares me. Not just because it’s bigoted and stupid (terrorists can look like anyone! Seriously, why is that so hard to understand?), but also because, as you say, it misses the point. Terrorism isn’t about a war between Americans and Muslims. It’s about a war between reason and decency on one side, and ignorance and intolerance on the other.

    If we single out certain groups and treat them as the enemy based on our preconceptions, that puts us on the side of ignorance and intolerance.

  14. Tim Groc says

    I think Taslima’s sentiments are accurate, but the argument over labels is just silly.

    You are putting the term ‘Humanist’ on a pedestal above all other labels, and putting ‘humanists’ above all other people – sort of at the top of the “evolutionary chain of being”. There can be humanists who have faults, and can even be bigoted in some way. An atheist is not a “humanist-lite”, and the two positions are radically different from one another. Atheism is simply a position on a single issue, humanism is far more complex and is a broader set of beliefs.

  15. Oscar says

    “I feel safe when I see people of all ages, of all colors,ethnicity and nationality, of all genders, and of all beliefs get screened. I would be terrified if I see only ‘Muslims and Muslim-looking people’ are going through security screening and others are free to board a plane.”

    You’re right. You should be scared if you see this happening, because that would mean that the TSA has finally lost their minds completely. However, this betrays a profound misunderstanding of both airport security and of Sam Harris’s argument. He didn’t propose the preposterous screening scenario that you aptly ridiculed, but wrote in defense of profiling people who look like they might be Muslim, since this is the most likely background of a terrorist wanting to blow up an airplane in the United States (or anywhere else in the Western world). He is not proposing that only people that remotely look like Muslims go through the normal security checks, but that certain criteria that includes Muslim profiling should be applied to decide who gets the privacy-invasive pat downs, and questioning that the TSA performs on certain individuals (even octogenarians and toddlers on wheelchairs).

    Sam’s point is not as insane as some people have made it out to be. It’s just common sense, really. Extremely politically incorrect common sense, but common sense, nonetheless.

    You should read his reply:

    • Paul Durrant says

      Taslima is completely correct to call out Sam Harris on this. He’s wrong, she’s right. It’s as simple as that.

  16. MHB says

    Taslima said in a comment, “I think atheism is about not believing god, and humanism is much more than that.” I have no problem with that.

    However, I’m going to nitpick because it looks like you’re mixing a couple of points here that don’t necessarily complement each other. And one of them gives legitimacy to very wrong things being done by my government in the name of security.

    Being harassed by the TSA does not make me feel safe. Neither would profiling not quite white people who might be Muslim, any more than arresting drivers for being Black or detaining dark-skinned Spanish speakers for, well, speaking Spanish and having dark skin. Or shooting them for walking home with iced tea and skittles. Or…

    Quite the contrary, what my government has done in the name of fighting terrorism is not making us safer. It’s actually making us less safe by legalizing torture and arbitrary, extra-judicial government detainment and killing of US citizens. Not to mention fighting wars in dozens of countries, most of which no one reads about.

    Encouraging my government to permit its agents to sexually harass women and arbitrarily hold up travelers doesn’t do any of us any good. Allowing them to racially or ethnically profile won’t make us safer, either.

    Please let me know how the TSA is making us safe if you’re going to compare it to racial or ethnic profiling.

    As far as Sam Harris and his profiling, he would be profiled and arrested in the US because it’s not humanists setting up the profiles. It’s the Christian security apparatus. And they know you can’t trust an atheist.

  17. Bytor says

    I feel safe when I see people of all ages, of all colors,ethnicity and nationality, of all genders, and of all beliefs get screened.

    Pretend, for the sake of argument, that one could tell whom a Muslim fundamentalist was by looking at them as distinct from merely an ethnic peer who dresses traditionally. I don’t think you can, but just pretend. If it is Muslim fundamentalists who are responsible for the bulk of terrorist attacks on airplanes or at airports, then, everything else being equal, preferentially screening them will result in fewer false negatives from not screening them and fewer false positives from screening the wrong people, therefore thus increasing the percentage of intercepted terrorists and decreasing the number of successful attacks. Properly targeted use of limited resources always increases effectiveness by reducing inefficiency. Whether or not this is racist is a separate thing from whether it would be effective for the two are not inherently exclusive attributes.

    If you were to argue that the profiling should not be done because it is racist, then I would agree with you. However, you’re arguing that it should not be done because screening everybody makes you feel better. In other words, you’re arguing for ineffective and wasteful security theatre out of your own fear and, worse, your own selfishness. That’s not really being very humanist of you.

  18. mnb0 says

    “I would not trust even die hard atheist looking people.”
    Quote of the month as far as I’m concerned. This is what should distinguish any atheist from religious bigots.

  19. Nathair says

    I feel safe when I see people of all ages, of all colors,ethnicity and nationality, of all genders, and of all beliefs get screened.

    Really? So it actually requires the TSA patting down two year olds in wheelchairs before you feel safe? Or that they pry the orthopedic shoes off of an 83 year old woman in her wheelchair and check them for concealed weapons before you feel safe? I think perhaps you need to apply a little bit more thought and a little bit less “I’m scared” to the question. Harris’ point is that the TSA has limited resources and would be better off applying them rationally with focus rather than taking a spray-and-pray approach and I agree with him on that.

  20. Ali Reza says

    Sam Harris’ ideas about airport profiling are pretty stupid. While I agree that it is possible to classify faces as probably Muslim (though this classification, if we were to do it with a supervised learning method with good fit, would most likely classify as Muslim faces that would surprise many: e.g. many dark-skinned Southeast Asians) that’s sort of besides the point. Sam Harris, in only looking at the likelihood term of the equation, is ignoring the incredibly LOW base rate of being a terrorist, period. What he is doing is formally almost identical to the taxicab fallacy. This self-proclaimed utilitarian is laughable. If he were a real utilitarian, he would spend more time on things that (insidiously) kill far more people than terrorism. Like, say, heart disease. But he’s a rookie.

  21. Ali Reza says

    Atheists need more enlightenment to become humanists. I dream of a day when all atheists would be free from racism, misogyny,homophobia,megalomania and other silly problems.

    Humanist ethics are unrealistic. Neither classical nor evolutionary game theory advise pure cooperation. It’s suicidal.

    And with incipient global food, water, and energy crises, which self-proclaimed “humanists” are essentially doing nothing about, because it’s inconvenient for them, the probability of your utopia emerging in this century vanishes to nil. In fact, the 21st century is bound to be far more hateful and destructive than the last.

    • says

      Nonsense. You don’t understand humanism.

      Neither classical nor evolutionary game theory (at least the straw versions you’re using) predict anonymous blood donations, public roads, schools and hospitals, the abolition of slavery, anti-discrimination legislation, gender equality or ChronoTrigger. Miraculously these things transpired anyway, and the world is a better place for it.

      “Pure co-operation” does occur in many species, particularly among closely related individuals or members of a social group. Not reciprocal altruism, but altruism without expectation of reward. This is predicted by evolutionary theory. If you want to be taken seriously, provide more details about what you mean by pure co-operation and why classical or evolutionary game theory makes it untenable.

      Or you could continue telling yourself you are a hard-nosed, cynical realist. I used to be a nihilistic poseur too. Then I turned 15.

  22. mynameischeese says

    If I had to get on a plane with Sam Harris and he wasn’t screened, I’d piss my pants. He looks exactly like the type who would go a little “mentally sick” and go on a celebrity air rage bender.

    And when I say he looks “exactly like the type,” I mean that I have no idea who is going to become mentally sick on a plane. Therefore, security should be applied to all passangers equally. That’s the most efficient way to go about it.

    And if TSA security is too dumb to catch Harris accidentally smuggling firearms onto a plane, I don’t see how more racial profiling is going to help matters.

    Personally, I would think, “TSA accidentally allowed a white guy to bring ammo onto a plane. They should improve their security.”

    Harris basically argues, “TSA allowed a white guy to bring ammo onto a plane. They should frisk more Muslims.” And that doesn’t really follow, does it?

    • says

      Harris basically argues, “TSA allowed a white guy to bring ammo onto a plane. They should frisk more Muslims.” And that doesn’t really follow, does it?

      That’s pretty much what he said after Anders Breivik killed all those people. This is a tragedy… because now people will talk about white Christian terrorists and lose focus on our real enemies, the Muslims.

      • mynameischeese says

        I missed that story. And until this racial profiling story came out, I always thought of Harris as being quite reasonable. People are so disappointing.

  23. Nathair says

    I don’t see how more racial profiling is going to help matters.

    Who said anything about racial profiling?

    • mynameischeese says

      Harris. Of course he avoids the term “racial,” but clearly that’s what he’s getting at here:

      “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye (after all, what would Adam Gadahn look like if he cleaned himself up?)”

      He’s not talking about people wearing items of clothing associated with Islam (because people who “clean up” by removing those items of clothing can look like him). He also says that if you’re fighting the IRA, you have to profile Irish people, so clearly he’s suggesting that certain ethnicities are more likely to be terrorists. Irish if you’re dealing with the IRA; Muslim-looking peoples (whatever the fuck that means) if you’re dealing with jihad.

      • Matt Penfold says

        He also says that if you’re fighting the IRA, you have to profile Irish people,….

        The British tried that. It resulted in a lot of innocent people being sent to prison for a long time and no reduction in the level of violence. If anything, it helped the IRA recruit members. Since those in charge of the IRA were not stupid, they simply started recruiting people who did not match the British profile of an IRA terrorist. A favourite tactic was to recruit people who were born and brought up on the British Mainland and who could pass as English but who were sympathetic to the IRA cause.

        Once the British decided to move to an intelligence led approach they started having much more success in catching the terrorists and foiling attacks. It is no coincidence that the IRA then decided they were better of seeking a peace agreement.

        The likes of Clydey (up-thread) and Harris do not seem to know this. Not only could Al-Quida do what the IRA did, and recruit people who do not fit the “profile”, there is good evidence they are already doing so.

        • mynameischeese says

          🙂 I agree.

          And you know what’s worse? The second wave of the IRA could have easily been prevented by the British government. If there hadn’t been so much official discrimination against catholics in Northern Ireland (for instance, catholics were not allowed to hold jobs in the public sector), the Troubles wouldn’t have taken off at all, there would be no second wave IRA.

          And worse, they probably could have prevented the first wave of the IRA by either not taking away the Irish parliament with the Act of Union; or possibly if they had ordered food for Ireland during the potato blight (as they ordered food for Scotland, Wales and England and as every other European country ordered food and thus succesfully prevented famine in their own countries).

          But I digress. Intelligence = an effective tactic. Racial profiling = a silly waste of time.

  24. camelspotter says

    I agree with security expert Bruce Schneier’s response to Harris. Profiling is not effective enough to warrant the resentment it would cause. The additional checks don’t provide that much extra security and profiling can be evaded easily enough in any case.

  25. Corey says

    Another unthoughtful and illogical criticism of Sam Harris’ article; one that argues not against Sam Harris, but instead presents a rather emotive and reactionary interpretation of Sam Harris.

    Take, for example, the very first paragraph. Right from the beginning, the author mistates Sam Harris’ position:

    “Sam Harris said TSA screeners at airport should not waste time screening old people, children, and other people who do not look like Muslims and they should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim and they should be honest about it. Sam Harris’s Muslim-profile-program is more dangerous than the notorious Homeland Security program in the Bush era!”

    Is that Sam’s argument. No, it’s not. The way the author states it, Sam is arguing that the TSA should just target all Muslims, all the time, and no one else. Yet, Sam Harris included himself as someone that should be profiled. Does Sam Harris look Muslim. No, he does not. But he isn’t in a category of person that has never been shown to engage in terrorist activity (american children, little old ladies, etc.). Then, in a shameless exhibition of demagoguery, the author concludes, without analysis of any kind, that this is worse than Patriot Act legislation of the Bush era, which it certainly is not (I would love to hear an argument on behalf of the author’s position here, but she doesn’t bother to give one, I wonder why… is it because it’s pure invective BS?)

    Next, the author goes on to declare that she feels safe when she sees the TSA searching suburban middle class toddlers and little old ladies from Pasadena. Yet she doesn’t even engage in Sam Harris’ argument, which is that such wasteful searching actually, quantifiably, PROVABLY makes all of us less safe.

    Then I stopped reading because–lol– why bother? This is clearly reactive emotive unreasonable crap that only serves to muddy the waters and confuse people about what the debate is actually about.

    • camelspotter says

      I don’t think a lack of profiling does make us provably less safe. Consider the costs and benefits for a moment, and I think you might agree that the answer is not so obvious. Assume:

      (1) profiling requires (says Bruce Schneier) more highly paid and skillful staff to implement
      (2) resources spent profiling are taken away from security measures aimed at detecting terrorists before they make it to the airport or away from the primary screening that everyone is subjected to
      (3) profiling can be evaded if terrorists invest effort in recruiting bombers who don’t match the current profile
      (4) profiling can be exploited by extremists to make propaganda saying westerners are racists and Muslim haters

      If the benefit in saved lives were truly greater than the costs in resentment and divisiveness then I would support it, but that remains to be shown. Just saying “people who are obviously not terrorists are getting secondary screening” is not enough to make the case for profiling.

  26. Tanmoy Saha says

    Indeed, we should be human firsr & ought to make our society rejuvinated with humanism/ humanistic attitude…
    Also, does a humanist need to be feminist in addition? A humanist is both feminist & masculinist or rather not the latter two’s… A humanist cares for both men & women, for all who r people/persons/rational & sympathetic minded….
    Regards Taslima..

  27. camelspotter says

    Taslima, would you agree with profiling if it could be shown by relevant experts to be highly effective at catching bombers (even when they knew about it and were trying to evade it somehow), or would the cost of unfairness and stoking resentment always be too high in your opinion?

    • Esteleth, Who is Totally Not a Dog or Ferret says

      I’ve were casting a narrow net of people likely to commit acts of terrorism within the US, then we need to be targeting white Christian men.

      The perfect scenario is to search everyone. That is impractical.

      The best alternative is to do truly random searches. That way, the terrorists are unable to pick a profile to not match. Did you not notice not long ago when an al-Qaida cell plotting an attack got broken up awhile back that had the planned bomber be a blonde white woman? If she showed up dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, no one would look at her a second time.

      Profiling does not work unless the profilers have detailed information on the people they’re looking at.

  28. Timberwoof says

    Camelspotter, thanks for the links to Bruce Schneier’s article. I think he explains his case is so well that it makes moot Sam Harris’s article and much of the discussion here.

    Interestingly, he gives entirely logical and rational reasons to act more like humanists.

  29. Frank says

    You wrote, “Atheists need more enlightenment to become humanists. I dream of a day when all atheists will be free from racism, misogyny,homophobia,megalomania and other silly things.”
    I am an atheist and I am not ANY of those things. You have the arrogance to lecture people about painting others unfairly and they turn around and do exactly the same thing.

  30. says

    Okay, first of all let me say I have a lot of respect for you, & I believe what you are doing is commendable.

    I have read the article by Sam Harris. I believe he meant well by it. He advised using sensibility instead of going by the book all the time. I can understand your fear, but he also made a few good points. He emphasized that a terrorist could look like anybody. So, I’d not call it racial profiling but using more sense during the check-ups.

  31. says

    Okay, another quick comment.

    I believe everybody should be a humanist regardless of their religion. The fact that I am an atheist doesn’t make me a better person than an ardent believer. Though I admit when I do a good thing, I don’t expect heaven. Just to feel the satisfaction of helping someone is suffice. And I’d like to believe that several believers also do the same.


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