Harris v. Greenwald: Is there an Anti-Islam Bias in New Atheism?

In any war

A few weeks ago, a fight broke out between two heavyweights of the blogosphere: Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald. I respect both of them so didn’t want to have to choose sides. Harris, author of The End of Faith, etc., is one of the most formidable defenders of secularism and atheism, and Greenwald, formerly of Salon and now blogging for the Guardian, is a ferocious advocate for civil liberties in the wake of 9/11.  They’ve been friendly en0ugh in the past to have each other’s private email addresses, apparently, which is where the fight began.

It started over a series of articles in the media claiming the “New Atheists” exhibit bigotry in their attacks on Islam. The first salvo in this attack came from Nathan Lean at Salon:

Until 9/11, Islam didn’t figure in the New Atheists’ attacks in a prominent way. As a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has traditionally been the archenemy of Christianity, though Jews and Judaism have also slipped into the mix. But emboldened by their newfound fervor in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the New Atheists joined a growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam (In 2009, Hitchens published a book called “God Is Not Great,” a direct smack at Muslims who commonly recite the Arabic refrain Allah Akbar, meaning “God is great”). Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”

Frankly, this strikes me as revisionist history if not an outright slur. It’s true that Harris’s The End of Faith was inspired by his revulsion against the religion (and religiosity) of the 9/11 attackers,  and it’s also true that the appearance of his bestselling book in 2004 often marks the opening of the American mind (and media and bookstore shelves) to atheism. In fact, by 9/11/01, the new, more aggressive atheism had already been bubbling up to the sunlight from various backwaters of the Internet, particularly on Usenet groups like talk.origins, sci.skeptic and alt.atheism, since before 1995 when I first came into contact with it. Most of those atheists rose in response to Christian evangelicalism and creationism of the 1970s and 1980s, and I think it’s a virtual certainty that Christianity remains by far the most frequent target of most American atheists’ critiques, if only because, like most Americans in general, they still lack more than a rudimentary understanding of Islam.

After reading his article, I criticized Lean on Twitter for his broad brush slander of all new atheists as Islamophobe bigots. He denied the charge. He claimed “I never mention atheists in any general sense. I’m quite specific,” and pointed me to the third paragraph of his Salon piece:

The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but I don’t see the clear distinction Lean claims he’s making between Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens and atheists at large. It looks like his distinction  is between “New Atheists” and “past” atheists–in other words, like he is, in fact, accusing all Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens–influenced atheists of today (which is virtually all of us) of anti-Muslim bigotry. To me, it looks as though Lean is advancing a bit of a bigotry himself, against New (or new) atheists. If you’re making a charge against someone of thoughtless and unjustified condemnation of a group, shouldn’t you be very careful that your own words don’t render you guilty of the very same charge?

In any case, Lean’s sloppy attack was followed that weekend by a more sophisticated (if intellectually misleading) essay on Al-Jazeera English by Murtaza Hussain, “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists.” Its blurb makes explicit Hussain’s charge: “Leading figures in the new atheist movement are heirs to the disreputable scientific racists of the past. . . .” I call this misleading because Hussain’s asserted connection between phrenology and other racist mismeasures of humans in the 19th century and contemporary atheism is no more easy to prove than the connection creationists claim between Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism (which actually preceded Darwin’s Darwinism!) and evolutionary biology. There may be an atheist somewhere alive today who is influenced by 19th century scientific notions of race, but you can’t prove it just by the fact that New Atheism came after scientific racism chronologically. Nor does Hussain succeed in showing Harris’s influence by scientific racism merely by cherry picking quotes of his that only vaguely echo long-discredited racist writings of yesteryear.  If you drill down a little into Harris’s pessimism about Islam’s ability to modernize and harmonize with the non-Islamic world, you’ll see that his ideas are influenced at least as much by a literalist (à la Qaeda) reading of the Quran and Hadith as by any Western writers on Islam.

Greenwald entered the ring when he sent out a tweet calling attention to Hussain’s essay “on the bigotry of the ‘New Atheists’, with a very revealing quote from Sam Harris.” The Harris quote in question comes from a 2006 op-ed of Harris’s in the LA Times: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

In their email exchange, Harris put the quote in context and explained what he was getting at:

I wasn’t making common cause with fascists—I was referring to the terrifying fact (again, back in 2006), that when you heard someone making sense on the subject of radical Islam in Europe—e.g. simply admitting that it really is a problem—a little digging often revealed that they had some very unsavory connections to Anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi, etc. hate groups. The point of my article was to worry that the defense of civil society was being outsourced to extremists.

It’s on this point that my sympathies start to swing more toward Greenwald in this debate.

It’s not surprising that Greenwald’s eye would have caught that provocative line about Europe’s fascists, not just because it’s certainly provocative but because it was the Bush-Cheney administration’s extreme overreaction to 9/11–the clampdown on civil liberties and stomping on the Constitution–that spurred Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, to start blogging in the first place.  He’s been at the forefront of public protest against the treatment of Muslims and Muslim Americans as “enemy combatants” deprived of all rights as citizens and prisoners of war. In an age when not just the politicians but often the people are inclined to give greater weight to security than liberty, I, for one, am grateful for Greenwald’s vigilance. I don’t view his courage to speak up for the rights of Muslims in detention as anything less than human rights advocacy. I certainly don’t view it as defense of religious liberty, which I truly believe to be of lesser import than defense of human dignity. And individuals’ dignity is something the strategists of the war on terror have been too eager to use as leverage in their quest for merely potential information of conspiracies.

As an atheist, I certainly have my own issues with Islam, as I do with any faith. Of course I agree with Harris that radical Islam is an unhealthy belief system for females, non-heterosexuals, and freethinkers. So is right-wing Christianity  and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What most bothers me about Islam in particular is the insistence of so many Muslims  that alternative thinking about or mocking of the religion be taboo, even among those who aren’t Muslim.  Which isn’t to say I think mocking Islam is a reasonable or wise (let alone intelligent) thing to do. I just think responding to hostility toward one’s beliefs with demands for punishment (often of people who have nothing to do with the “crime” in the first place) is pathetic–there’s no more polite way of phrasing it. And certain Muslims do frequently respond that way, as witness the spontaneous reactions to the Mohammad cartoon controversy in Europe, Koran desecration in Afghanistan and the Innocence of Muslims movie last fall.

But I don’t believe, as Harris seems to believe, that there’s something “wronger” with Islam than with any other religion. It seems crystal clear to me that much of what makes Muslims seem so irrational, hostile and uncivil toward the West has more to do with the centuries-old global politics of East v. West and North v. South than with Islam v.  Judeo-Christianity. I’m not sure Harris gets that. In fact, Theodore Sayeed has suggested that Harris’s bias against Muslims is possibly the consequence of his being a Zionist, i.e., a staunch supporter of Israel, right or wrong. “For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their ‘reflexive solidarity’ with Arab suffering,” Sayeed writes, “Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work.”

I have to agree (mostly) with Greenwald’s assessment of where, precisely, Harris goes astray:

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.”

This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We” – the civilized peoples of the west – are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”

In sum, he sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims. As this superb review of Harris’ writings on Israel, the Middle East and US militarism put it, “any review of Sam Harris and his work is a review essentially of politics”: because his atheism invariably serves – explicitly so – as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims. That’s why his praise for European fascists as being the only ones saying “sensible” things about Islam is significant: not because it means he’s a European fascist, but because it’s unsurprising that the bile spewed at Muslims from that faction would be appealing to Harris because he shares those sentiments both in his rhetoric and his advocated policies, albeit with a more intellectualized expression.

Where I disagree with Greenwald (and many of the other Harris critics piling on) is that I take Harris at his word that he is “liberal” (despite many contrarian positions he holds; in addition to his apparently Zionist-infused attitudes toward the Middle East, he also is a passionate defender of gun ownership, even in the wake of Newtown). Furthermore, while it’s clear that Harris and Hitchens and apparently even Dawkins are likely guilty of overemphasizing the dangers of Islam vis-à-vis all other religions (and under-emphasizing the political nature of  much of the Muslim world’s antagonisms toward the West), I can’t buy that this is a fault inherent in “New Atheism” unless by that (upper case) term one is specifically referring to the self-appointed leaders of the (lower-case) new atheism movement of which I and millions of others consider ourselves members. (We atheists have called those specific persons, including Tufts University-based philosopher Daniel Dennet, The Four Horsemen. No one seems to be including Dennet in this crowd of allegedly Islamophic atheists, however, probably because Dennet is an old-fashioned, gentlemanly New England liberal who is sparing with his  invective. )

I’ve spent a lot of words on this subject because the disagreement between these two was troubling to me. After starting this post several weeks ago when the feud was fresh, I hesitated to continue, being not totally sure what good my two cents would do to the debate, or even to my own thinking about atheism and Islam.

Then the Boston marathon explosions occurred, I saw the old shit from post-9/11 being stirred up again, and I wondered if my fellow Americans were becoming as sick of that mind set as I have become. And I realized that the unwelcome rift between two of my favorite thinkers in the world today gave me an opportunity to explore exactly what it was about the knee-jerk Islamaphobia Boston stirred up that disgusted me, a sentiment I share with Glenn Greenwald,  by looking at it through the filter of the atheism I share with Sam Harri.

I’d like to say more about what this rift has had me thinking about relevant to post-Boston 4/15. Mercifully, I’ll have to say it in another post.

Update: Justin Doolittle at Crimethink has a very thoughtful response to this column. My preliminary thoughts about his piece are here.

24 thoughts on “Harris v. Greenwald: Is there an Anti-Islam Bias in New Atheism?

  1. I think if we are honest, really honest, we have to agree that Islam has less tolerance for disbelief than other faiths. Not always and at all times, but as a general statement, I find it hard to dispute.

    Now what exactly that tells us, I am not certain. Public discourse on such things is still littered with strawmen and Godwinian bombast, so maybe just a simple building block is enough. There remains tremendous resistance to any kind of ordering of religions via any kind of normative standard as the fence built around Mitt Romney’s Mormonism proved. “Mainstream” commentators and writers simply did not touch the topic.

    As I said at the time, no one thought it strange to nominate the follower of a bizarre, extreme, and very recent “prophet” to spend months and millions threatening and obsessing over the followers of different bizarre, extreme, and not quite so recent “prophet.”

    • I’m uncomfortable with a strict ordering of the sort you propose, but I do understand your thoughts about the oddness of the non-issue-ness of Romney’s Mormonism in the last election cycle. Some would say this was a good thing that American voters were so tolerant of the man’s religious views, that this says something positive about our shared notions of freedom. Of course if Romney were found to have believed an alien twelve-headed rabbit was guiding his moral decisions, there never would have been a Romney candidacy in the first place.

  2. The Israeli propaganda poster at the top of the post, prior to having the racist sticker stuck over it, pretty much typifies Harris’ and Dawkins’ attitude to me.

    Atheism should be a movement for peace, and to have our most prominent figures supporting a God given right to Colonialist activity in the middle east, on the basis that they are the more “civilised” race is an absolute embarrassment.

    Zionism is an irrational and racist or a Machiavellian concept, promoted by the west through the perceived interests of western powers in their domination of the middle east.

    You either have to be irrational and racist, or Machiavellian to support it.

      • Being unconcious is a reasonable excuse if you don’t express an opinion on the subject, but just about everyone has an opinion.

        The reality is people are heavily propagandised, but since they willingly purchase their propaganda boxes and by into the whole concept of marketing being benign they don’t see it that way, and will strongly object to anyone pointing out that they are.

        Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have no such excuse, he is told by people every day to read Noam Chomsky, has he ever read one of his books, have either of them ever attempted to prove false any of Chomsky’s claims?

        No they brush it aside and change the subject back to the evils of other cultures, not those of their own.

        • Well I totally agree with you about Harris’s and Dawkins’ negligence there.

          Some of us atheists like to believe that if you’ve taken the step to admit you can’t believe in Iron Age theology, you’re ready to see the current world head on with no inherited filters. But of course that’s an idle wish. Harris and Dawkins have bought the received wisdom of Western progress apparently unquestioningly. They’ve both benefited from it. I don’t reject them wholesale because of that, but it’s good to have no delusions, so to speak, about their biases.

          • Well it seems we are in agreement, but I would say that if we are to idolise certain Atheists as leaders of a movement, those of us who see Harris and Dawkins like we do, as those who are uncritical, irrational, even unscientific when it comes to this subject. We should reject them as our proponents.

            Greenwald, Chomsky, the late Bertrand Russell are better atheists than Dawkins and Harris.

            I am not unfamiliar with the though process in idolising Dawkins, I once did myself, but I just can’t endorse Dawkins any more. The content of his twitter feed more than anything have put me off his bile.

            Dawkins never tried to address any of Greenwalds criticisms just call him odious and character assassinate him.

            • I was never a “worshiper” if you will of any of the Four Horsemen. I was glad they were so vocal, but then I was also glad for Penn Jillette’s outspokenness. I have a soft spot for Dawkins because he’s been at it for so long, but I lost some respect for his mind when I watched him debate theists. He has a tendency to stick to his talking points no matter what anyone else is saying. And that tweet you cite–oy! He’s just dropped a whole lot of points in my regard.

              • I have nothing against Penn Jillette other than being politically motivated by his own exceptionally fortunate success, and perhaps too high a regard for his own opinions. Which Dawkins and Harris also have in droves (the high regard, I mean).

                From what I have seen of Penn he is essentially a Ron Paul supporting Libertarian who (unlike Dawkins and Harris) is against pretty much all of the evils of US foreign policy.

                Has Jillette chimed in about this Greenwald Vs New Atheists debate at all?

  3. That must suck for you to feel such discomfort.

    Jesus.

    I don’t have any issue here. I support Greenwald’s criticizing of Harris, Hitchens and like for two primary reasons: 1) Greenwald isn’t simply someone who is an advocate for civil liberties but is an one of the most consistant critics of authoritarianism and Western imperialism in any of its vile forms and we need that badly, and 2) he has been in dialogue with Muslims over issues of civil liberites and Western supremancy, whereas people like Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins are pontificating from a bleeping Western-supremacist, pro-imperialism, white privilege ivory tower that has a banner that reads “If you don’t buy our BS you’re stupid” plastered on the front. (Please note that I did NOT call them “Islamophobes”!)

    This is not hard to figure out. It really, really is not.

    The more I see of this pathetic rationalizing, this hand-wringing, this “what can I say to make what Harris or Dawkins are doing OK in my mind” by atheists, the more I am convinced that the New Athiesm movement is an authoritarian movement and Greenwald is doing what Greenwald does–putting his foot down whenever authoritarianism tries to bully its way into democratic discissions. He’s not always right on target in what he says, but he has damn good instincts when it comes to things like these, largely because he’s drawing from a far wider and more diverse pool of experience and *knowledge* on the issue than the rest of us. Knowledge! What an ass-kicker!

    Moreover, all this ‘splanin’ by atheists reminds me of my first lesson as a philosophy grad student: Don’t be a fan. Fans are followers, not thinkers. And New Atheism (whether in captial or lower case letters) is full of fans who break out into a fierce sweat of cognitive confusion whenever someone they cannot so easily dismiss. like a fellow atheist like Greenwald, criticizes one of their beloved, trusted leaders. Would have been so much easier if it was a brown guy with a non-Western name you’ve never heard of before. Like I said, that must suck for you.

    • Maybe you should also have learned to read thoroughly and closely in grad school. Might have been more useful to you than bumper sticker truisms like “don’t be a fan.”

      A little lesson you can take away from me: Don’t start an article with a preconceived notion about what the author is thinking. That approach might prevent you from actually reading and thinking about the article yourself.

      I suggest you go back and reread the article and if you have something intelligent to say about it, I hope you’ll share it.

  4. Interesting read, and I have followed this debate between Harris and Greenwald.

    But my simple question is: Does Islam at this moment constitute a greater threat compared to other religion for peace. This question was brought up by Harris in his lengthy response on his blog. The key question being, should we consider Islam a greater threat to peace than Jainism, a religion that strictly adheres to non-violence?

    This question set be back because initially I was agreeing with Greenwald. But Jainism, although still a religion that believes in supernatural deity, has a lot less that I criticize than Islam, Christianity or Zionism?

    So, if we were equally critical of all these religions, are we not saying we consider each of these religions equally detrimental to the state of society that we want to change.

    I think the unfortunate answer is that I have to agree with Harris on this. There is a greater argument against all religion which is equal in that they believe in a supernatural deity that I reject. However, if we start talking about the current reality, and the ills that I (we) consider the foremost problems that needs to be tackled, then the argument becomes uneven.

    Where I do think Islamophobia seems rampant is that currently most of our discussions are based on certain issues that have been brought up due to radical muslims. And hence, it seems atheists are Islamophobes. But if the pressing issues were different, then it is very probable that notion would be non-existent, or even change to a different religion being targeted.

    In the end, my argument is that the perceived Islamophobia is due to current circumstances, and brings one particular religion to the forefront of criticism. Hence, that religion take a significant amount of heat from critics. I do not think it is simply Islamophobia, but a consequence of events over the last 13 years (9/11 being the most prominent of them). Not all criticism is fair, and other religion should also take blame for many issues, but I do not think Islam has been targeted as the go to religion. It has rather become the main issue because some extremists took action brought it to the fore front.

    • I appreciate your thoughtfulness about this and your points are well taken.

      Where I part ways with Harris and perhaps you is that I don’t believe present circumstances–the global status quo–are worth preserving quite as much. I don’t believe that the Western civilization Harris sees as under attack especially from radical Islam is as shining as Harris seems to think it is. It’s crumbling, but Islam is far from the only threat to its health, in fact, is not even the worst threat to its health. In fact it seems to me that Western aggression is a direr threat to the Islamic world than vice versa.

      Not that I believe the Islamic world is worth preserving either, mind you, at least not as a theologically guided civilization. I begin to sound a bit like a nihilist, but I’m more of an anti-imperialist anarchist. I think the worst threats to the species are grand ideas becoming the dogma of the controlling powers. I hope to develop these ideas further in future posts.

      • You bring up an interesting point, and I think I would agree with you in a lot of cases where the status quo should change. But I also think this particular argument between Harris and Greenwald was about a specific point. The issues in the Arab countries seem to much more aligned to the religion than the issues in the West. American domestic and foreign policy do not try to align with the Christian doctrine, whereas Arab countries explicit try to achieve it. And religious extremism, though present in the US and other western countries, again seem to be much greater and much more violent in the Muslim world.

        And hence, I agree with Harris in this debate. I have not read all of Harris’ writings, and I am a supporter of stricter gun control (where you and I seem to differ in opinion too), but as far as Islam currently being the most problematic religion, I would agree with Harris.

        • The problem I have with the focus on Islamic countries as the source of evil in the modern world is that we can’t really do anything about what they think and how they’re feeling about us from inside their heads and hearts. We can only control our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. If it makes you (and I mean anybody, not specifically you) feel good to vent about inscrutable Muslims, ok. That’s a right and a freedom. But it isn’t much more than that.

          The problem here, to be more specific, is that our policy makers believe (or act as though they believe) they can control perceived Islamist evil through force, if necessary, and they believe this despite all evidence to the contrary. The more force the US and others in the West use, the more Islamism comes back to bite us in the ass. The wise guys amongst us think abandoning the forceful approach–the drone wars, detentions, ethnic profiling, entrapment, all the singling out of Muslims as the source of all our security problems–even in the face of continued or increased terror and decreased American influence in the Islamic countries, is equal to going soft, weak, female even. But it seems to me that it’s the tough guy approach that is really weakening us. It’s demonstrating that it’s they who are getting into our heads and hearts.

          Justin Doolittle, who wrote a very thoughtful critique of my essay on his blog (see Update above for a link–it’s a good read) suggested that my reluctance to single out Islam as an especially awful religion was due to a deference toward it that had been bullied into me (he didn’t use such language, but his meaning was clear) by Islamist pushback of the kinds I cited in this piece against Western desecration of Islam’s sense of self, if you will. I understand why he or anyone would think that, even though I said clearly that the way so many Muslim’s react to criticism of their religion by non-Muslims is “pathetic” (a word Doolittle thought too weak, and I’m willing to grant him that).

          I think, however, that my reluctance to make harsh noise toward Islam owes more to the real doubts I have about the easiness of putting Islam in that box for we who don’t really know it or understand it. Does Islam seem harsher to me than Jainism? Absolutely. Than Quakerism or Unitarianism? Of course. Than Christianity? I’m really not so sure. It’s not Muslims who are “protesting” the funerals of the Boston Marathon bombing victims because they believe “God Hates Fags.” I think Westerners excuse Christianity’s most vile tendencies because, come on, Westboro Baptist Church isn’t Christian! Is it? Identity Christians aren’t Christian. Are they? Abortion-doctor killers aren’t Christians.

          Well actually of course they are. They all are.

          • I agree with you that violence to try and subdue perceived religious threat is not the answer. Indeed, America has been weakened economically and politically due to it’s reaction to certain specific threats that relate to Muslim extremists. Racial profiling is ethically wrong, and is counter-productive. I do not specifically share Sam Harris’ position on all of these issues.

            But I am curious to know what you think about the discourse about Islam. Do you also think it’s counter-productive to criticize Islam and countries that adhere to it’s doctrine? Do you think it actually harms the US that many people openly criticize the religion here? I think that is a larger question, which Sam Harris also perhaps points to in uncertain terms.

            My original point was that due to recent events, Islam has come under heavier criticism than other religions. So if you think that we cannot change their beliefs but can only control our actions, do you think open criticism is also harming America’s position?

            • No I don’t think open criticism or even mocking of Islam ought to be taboo. I am a free speech kind of guy. I don’t blame freedom of speech for Islamic overreaction. If I were given the power to control anything in the Islamic mind it would be to give it a thicker skin when it comes to perceived insults to the prophet and religion. I am not a fan of religiosity or self-righteousness of any kind. I suggested above that it’s not wise, prudent, or intelligent to insult Islam, but I didn’t say I thought it should be forbidden or even discouraged. I actually feel this way about all religions. I’ve done my share of outright insulting and laughing at them, believe me, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to do that.

              What I mean is, maliciousness toward anything is not a good thing. I agree with that bumper sticker “mean people suck,” even while admitting I’ve been mean plenty of times. We’re free creatures. We make mistakes over and over. We are permitted to. But criticism is something else entirely. There are mean ways to mock and gentle ways–it’s the difference between hurting and giving. Calling Islam the most vile religion accomplishes.. what? Pointing out directly to Muslims that they shouldn’t be so thin skinned about their religion might actually accomplish something. I hope so. I mean, reaching across, dialoguing, communicating–these are good things. Categorical dismissal, not so good.

              • Fair enough.

                My summary of your position is that the tone of dialogue should be considered in discussing about Islam. And I agree. But you did mention that freedom of speech comes first, and that Sam Harris should be able to criticize Islam as it pleases which is where I stand too.

                And I think that is where I side with Sam Harris in his argument against Greenwald. Greenwald argued that Sam Harris had a unreasonably strong position against Islam, but I think Islam currently should bear more criticism. But whether his tone was rude or not, his point is valid and he has every right to voice that.

                A side point is that Christianity has been equally destructive in history, and perhaps more so if you look at cumulative history. But currently, Islam is in the forefront because extremism has led to more violent actions recently. Hence, we talk about Islam more.

                • Free speech entails the possibility of being answered, challenged or criticized. Or mocked. You can’t control the reaction. Least of all can you control it if your speech is unreasonable.

                  Let me try to boil my position down to its essence: Harris is free to have his opinions about Islam, certainly. Anyone is free to opine loudly all they want about how vile Islam is. They may be right. Personally I think they oversimplify. The bottom line for me is that saying Islam is the most vile religion or the most dangerous religion is not particularly courageous. It’s not helpful, really, in the context of what the West has done to the parts of the world where Islam is concentrated. We’re going to drone you to death AND call your religion the most vile in the world. How do you like them apples, Muslims? Now change! I just don’t see how that’s going to have any effect other than that of a steam valve.

                  So if I’m not making myself clear, I think Greenwald’s point that Harris’s position only makes things worse because it gives aid and comfort to the fools who effect our terror-inducing policy toward Muslims and Islam is stronger than Harris’s that Islam is uniquely dangerous. In fact I would say that the Harris’s of the world (and the Bushes, Cheneys, Rumsfelds, etc.) are blind participants in the making of Islam as the worst threat to “civilization” in the world. They’re fools not to see it, in my opinion.

  5. I feel like much of the violence related to Islam is more the result of foreign occupation and instigation as opposed to built in religious violence. It seems religion is more of a supporting apparatus as opposed to a rallying cause. While I do acknowledge the the intolerance seen in Islam is more widespread and accepted, I also feel that this is a result of a society still in development. In the US as late as the 90′s and even in some pockets to this day there is still rampant racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic sentiment.

    • I think we pretty much agree across the board. I was just wondering “aloud” to Justin Doolittle (see the Update above) whether there’s a single modern Muslim state that did not come into being by European fiat. Possibly Iran (aka Persia)? But the rest were sliced and diced, all part of European conquest and colonialism. So when you call these societies “still in development,” I think of them as societies whose development may have been deliberately stunted by the West.

      Nevertheless, though I think understanding the situation is important, it’s equally necessary to beware of excusing Muslims from responsibility to be empathic to non-Muslims (which their ancestors certainly were in medieval Spain, eg). But my main concern in calling out my fellow atheists for possible Islamophobia is to counter the tendency in the West, and in the US in particular, to use 9/11 and the phony global war on terror to excuse ourselves from empathy.

  6. Doctors who pile up millions of corpses, or pathologists who do not need them?
    After you, I want you to meet Mary.

  7. Pingback: Harris v. Greenwald II: Is Islam Worse Than Other Religions? | Tragic Farce

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