No, Sam Harris is not Islamophobic

Cue the liberal freak-out over the title of this post.

Frequently antagonistic comedian Bill Maher made news last week when he and Ben Affleck got into a Fox News style shouting match over Islam. Maher was joined by fellow atheist and famous neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both of them made the argument that while most Muslims are peaceful and moderate, the main problem with Islamic jihad is Islam itself.

Ben Affleck’s first response to the completely valid point was predictable: That’s racist!

“[It’s] the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher said. “There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7.”

Harris’ response was more eloquent and – I’d argue – relevant…

“[Muslim cultures] often keep women and homosexuals immiserated…we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” he told Affleck. “And lying about doctrine and this behavior is not going to do that.”

He’s absolutely right.

Islamophobia exists. I’m not debating that. Far-right leaders and talking heads proposing the abolition of First Amendment freedoms for Muslims is probably the best example. It is ludicrous to think that most Muslims are fanatical jihadists, too. The Muslim faith has a-billion-and-a-half adherents worldwide. Incredible and brilliant people are among its followers. Islam – like the world’s other large religions – is also full of different theological interpretations of the Qur’an. Liberal and moderate Muslims exist, despite most press coverage.

But the Qur’an, like the Christian Bible, is also an incredibly violent book with troubling morality. Calling for the death of blasphemers or stoning women and homosexuals can be found in both. Genocide, sexism, homophobia, racism….these are all central themes of the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Pointing this out is not Islamophobic or anti-Christian – it’s a fact. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that most Muslims have darker skin than Europeans and Americans.

Even though I’m not religious, I have immense respect for religious leaders who recognize Bronze Age religious texts for what they are – too-frequently barbaric. Just like Harris, I believe that these brave men and women should continue to be empowered to fight fanaticism and savagery within their cultures. Progressive Muslim Akmal Ahmed Safwat of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark says it best for religious reformers: “The Qur’an’s divine instructions were interpreted and explained by fallible and mortal men who were the product of their time and culture.”

If secular liberals and progressives are to continue to fight the spread of fundamentalist Christianity (as we should definitely continue to do), we have to be intellectually honest and continue to denounce radical and fundamentalist Islam as well. That’s not racist, bigoted, or neoconservative. It’s vital to maintaining a pluralistic society.

Sam Harris

 

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Happy Thoughts

I know I have quoted Sam Harris, neuroscientist and best-selling author, on this blog before. I can’t help it. His style is so eloquent and yet simple to understand. Although I don’t agree with everything the man says or writes, I have great respect and admiration for him.

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science can and should be used to determine moral values for humanity. The following quote sums up his view of emotionally-founded beliefs (and dogmatic adherence to them):

…motives like wanting to find the truth, not wanting to be mistaken, etc., tend to align with epistemic goals in a way that many other commitments do not. As we have begun to see, all reasoning may be inextricable from emotion. But if a person’s primary motivation in holding a belief is to hew to a positive state of mind – to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt, for instance – this is precisely what we mean by phrases like “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” Such a person will, of necessity, be less responsive to valid chains of evidence and argument that run counter to the beliefs he is seeking to maintain. To point out nonepistemic motives in another’s view of the world, therefore, is always a criticism, as it serves to cast doubt upon a person’s connection to the world as it is.

Religious Morality vs. Secular Morality (Sam Harris’ Take)

Sam Harris’ latest, brilliant book The Moral Landscape argues that science and reason can and should be used to define what is moral.

When Harris wrote his previous best-seller The End of Faith, he received mail from people from all over the political/philosophical spectrum. Their main objection: Reason cannot be used to determine what is moral. Harris’ response: Yes, it most definitely can (and must).

Below is an excerpt from The Moral Landscape:

This rupture [belief that reason cannot determine moral values] in our thinking has different consequences at each end of the political spectrum: religious conservatives tend to believe that there are right answers to questions of meaning and morality, but only because the God of Abraham deems it so. They concede that ordinary facts can be discovered through rational inquiry, but they believe that values must come from a voice in a whirlwind. Scriptural literalism, intolerance of diversity, mistrust of science, disregard for the real causes of human and animal suffering – too often, this is how the division between facts and values expresses itself on the religious right.

Secular liberals, on the other hand, tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. While John Stuart Mill might conform to our cultural ideal of goodness better than Osama Bin Laden does, most secularists suspect that Mill’s ideas about right and wrong reach no closer to the Truth. Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance – these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.

It should concern us that these two orientations are not equally empowering. Increasingly, secular democracies are left supine before the unreasoning zeal of old-time religion. The juxtaposition of conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt accounts for the decade that has been lost in the United States to a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; it explains the years of political distraction we have suffered, and will continue to suffer, over issues like abortion and gay marriage; it lies at the bottom of current efforts to pass antiblasphemy laws at the United Nations (which would make it illegal for citizens of member states to criticize religion); it has hobbled the West in its generational war against radical Islam; and it may yet refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate. Knowing what the Creator of the Universe believes about right and wrong inspires religious conservatives to enforce this vision in the public sphere at almost any cost; not knowing what is right – or that anything can ever be truly right – often leads secular liberals to surrender their intellectual standards and political freedoms with both hands.

….

The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and the good life…this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true. Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures – and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

….

It seems inevitable, however, that science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions – and this is guaranteed to provoke a backlash. How we respond to the resulting collision of worldviews will influence the progress of science, of course, but it may also determine whether we succeed in building a global civilization based on shared values. The question of how human beings should live in the twenty-first century has many competing answers – and most of them are surely wrong. Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists.

Sam Harris

We’re All Guilty

The following, brilliant quote comes from Sam Harris’ latest best-seller “The Moral Landscape.”

The point: it’s easy and natural to base our ideas and lives on biases and irrational beliefs rooted in familial and societal pressures.

“Reasoning errors aside, we know that people often acquire their beliefs about the world for reasons that are more emotional and social than strictly cognitive. Wishful thinking, self-serving bias, in-group loyalties, and frank self-deception can lead to monstrous departures from the norms of rationality. Most beliefs are evaluated against a background of other beliefs and often in the context of an ideology that a person shares with others. Consequently, people are rarely as open to revising their views as reason would seem to dictate.”

Groupthink is a powerful thing.

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