Monday, August 16, 2010

Somewhere far below Sam Harris's feet swims a shark

This past Saturday, 14 August, Sam Harris tweeted this:

My thoughts on the mosque...

I responded:

@SamHarrisOrg I usually like to read your thoughts, but on this one, sorry: you're not much better than the rest of the bedwetting #wingnuts

A day later, he tweeted this:

Thank you @AsraNomani !

I responded:

@SamHarrisOrg Will you also thank those who write about the violent&racist factions within the #teaparty movement? Or do only muslins count?

(The articles in question, if shortened URLs make you nervous: Harris's, Nomani's.)

Not that I actually expect Sam Harris to notice what I have to say in response to him, nor is what I'm going to say below particularly original, but hey, sometimes being part of the chorus just has to do when no one is asking for an aria. Maybe if enough of us sing loudly enough, he'll hear us, and at least think about what he's saying and what we're saying.

I should say to begin that I quite liked Harris's 2004 book The End of Faith. I have also enjoyed listening to him lecture and debate. I have, however, always felt that he went too far in demonizing ALL Muslims and the entire religion of Islam. I think this latest article of his indicates he's plunging off the deep end. On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, I think his attitude does more harm than good to the cause of diminishing the unwarrantedly privileged position of faith in our society.

I sent the above links by email to a friend, an outspoken atheist like me, and he responded, and then I responded to him. Part of my response follows, with a few minor edits. My friend's words are indicated by blockquotes -- I was responding to his email in pieces.


My general notion is that if you're an atheist and think all religions are nuts, then there isn't any such thing as going too far in demonizing the entire religion of Islam or Christianity. What's not to demonize?

Like it or not, you and I are in a distinct minority when it comes to assessing the worth of religious belief. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing to be done about that fact of life, at least during my lifetime, except to keep pushing and hope that you're contributing to movement in a positive direction. And crucially, these pushes have to be applied with an awareness of time and place. You can, for example, especially if you're Hitch, Dawkins, or for that matter Sam Harris, be quite cutting, even in a sweeping way, in a debate with some pastor or theologian, or panel of them. However, it does no good, and is likely counterproductive, to demonize all religion (and by extension, all people who consider themselves religious) without regard to context or setting -- all this is going to do is harden the resolve of a lot of them and make a lot of the rest of them think "atheism is just another religion -- those people are as fundamentalist as anyone they criticize."

And that's not even considering the external aspects, which, as in this case, are of even more importance in the near term. Thanks to their own internal problems and our previous president, among other reasons, many if not most Muslims worldwide feel like "the West is out to get us." They think this both about Christianists and atheists. And this is true for the moderates as well as the fundamentalists and violent extremists. An attitude like Harris's just makes develop more of a sense of "it's us vs. them."

Look, no matter how stupid the things that religious people believe or claim to believe, the fact is, most of them are otherwise perfectly decent people who just want to go about their business and are fairly well content to leave others to do the same. To lump all one billion of them together as Harris has done is bigoted and serves no purpose except to push "all of them" toward the very place he says he worries about -- kneejerk anti-Westernism and anti-modern thought.

There is a time and place for pushing back against ideas, and there is a time and place for realizing that we all have to live on this planet together. Or, more to the point, in a city like New York. The mixing of cultures is a net good, and the goodness is increased by making newcomers feel welcome, not threatened or hated or feared. Look at Europe -- this latter mindset on the part of those who were there first has caused many Muslim immigrant neighborhoods to become increasingly insular, and the people who live in them to gravitate toward more and more radical leaders.

It is hokum to point to some verse in the Koran and claim that all Muslims believe in violent propagation of their beliefs, or anything of that sort, which Harris has been doing for the better part of a decade now. You might as well claim that all Christians think adulteresses should be stoned to death, just because it says so someplace in the Bible. Virtually all religious people are "cafeteria Catholics," if you know what I mean -- they all pick and choose what they want from their religion as it works in their own personal lives.

Therefore, part of winning the long-term struggle against all forms of religion and how they dominate too much of society and thinking is to encourage the moderates, keep having dialogs, and keep showing them that there is actually nothing to worry about from our way of living and thinking. I am not saying by any means that we should be accommodationists, but we do have to be smart about how we pick our battles and how we fight them.

So ...

I didn't think too much of Asra Nonami's article. She talks about all the nutty stuff about Islam and then says she's a practicing Muslim and would like to have a moderate mosque to attend. This kind of thinking should be demonized. How about if we had no religions -- moderate or otherwise. The world would be a better place. Peaceful moderates be damned they just give cover to the whole nutty idea of religion.

... it should be obvious by now that I don't agree with that. As I said, yes, in the ideal, we would have no religions and no people who were driven by religious beliefs. But we're not close to that, we're not going to get there any time soon, and meantime, we have to live with and deal with a whole lot of people whose cultures and general attitudes are affected by their religious upbringings.

I agree that it would be good for religious moderates to make more of an effort to disparage the extremists claiming the same brand name, but I don't think it's reasonable to ask them to do this full-time. Does my father, who attends church at least once a week and often more, and who never proselytizes to me, really have to tell me when I'm at his house and he's on his way out the door, every time, that he disavows any connection with Pat Robertson?

Nor do I think it's even smart to demonize them, purely for being religious moderates. First, odds are in most cases that you'll just make them more prone to drifting toward more rigid and intolerant interpretations of their faith.

Second, it is entirely too simplistic -- and borders on conspiracy thinking -- to believe that moderates are doing nothing but giving cover to extremists. You ever hear that old George Carlin joke about how everybody else on the highway is either an idiot or a maniac? ("Will you look at how slow this idiot is driving ... Whoa! Look at that maniac go!") That's pretty much how most religious people think -- their amount of piety, observance, literal vs. metaphorical interpretation of their scripture, etc., is the exact right amount. I'm convinced that most moderate people of faith don't like their fundies any more than you or I do; in fact, I suspect most of them dislike them more, due to the tarring-by-association that the fundies cause them. And in any case, they are hardly of one mind. If they were, they would have won by now, and in fact, slowly but surely, they're losing. The biggest growth in religious attitudes in the US over the recent past has been among those who claim no belief.

I get about one Jehovah's Witness visit a month -- for some reason they really like to work my neighborhood. Everyone of them wants to debate me about the bible. It's a waste of my time to try to reason with nit wits. I take all their handouts and ask for extra copies of some of it and as soon as they leave I throw it all away. At least it's costing them money to harass me.

Yep. That's a good and fun way to deal with such people. But here, I think you are supporting my view as expressed above, that sometimes it's better to use tae kwon do and sometimes it's better to use tai chi. You have found a way to deal with -- even do battle with -- these people that doesn't involve getting in their face and shouting. Unlike Sam Harris, I would observe.


P.S. The thought occurs to me that advocating demonizing an entire class of people merely because of their shared religious belief is indistinguishable from what that little guy with the funny mustache did in Germany, seventy-odd years ago. I know that you are not actually saying we should round them all up and put them in concentration camps, and I'll grant arguendo that Harris isn't, either. But you know what? There are, in fact, people who are pretty damned close to thinking that. At least concerning adherents of one particular brand of religion or another. So I think you should rethink your choice of the word demonize and how literally you mean it, because it seems to me that all it does is encourage the worst people in our society.


Alastair said...

Well said. I haven't read the articles you linked to, but your comments make sense to me.

The practice of religion is definitely to be tolerated, not eradicated. At least, not eradicated through force, but instead through intelligent, respectful dialogue. It's not always possible of course, but that's the idea anyway.

I view the practice of religion the same way I view a foreign (to me) hobby or pastime. Like scrapbooking, tribal drumming or gambling. If you like this sort of thing, I say go nuts. Up to the point, of course, where it becomes harmful to others. Such as the the young or powerless. Or animals. Or maybe yourself.

There's a line here, and of course there are many who cross over it. It's hard not to want these objectionable nutcases to go ahead and demonstrate their belief in the eternal paradise by just killing themselves.

But I don't think that's what is happening with the ground zero mosque. At least not from what I've read anyway.

Brendan said...

Been trying to think of a good response since you posted your comment, and each time I start, it feels like it'll go on for hours. So I guess I need to clarify my thoughts some more, especially since you and I are so closely agreed on this matter.