Tag Archives: Sam Harris

As many people may know, I take a fairly extreme position as far as freedom of speech is concerned, opposing hate speech laws. Of course, in privately owned spaces people can have whatever rules they like. The Guardian is a privately owned newspaper and accompanying website and they can take down whatever items they like. However, since as a newspaper they are in a position of trust regarding information, it would be nice to know what their policies are regarding moderation of comments. Indeed, they have a page explaining their community standards.

Recently, they took down a comment by someone representing the ExMuslims Forum (h/t Ophelia Benson). Before it was taken down, Ophelia Benson had reproduced the comment because she thought it excellent. I am reproducing it here because it has been taken down. ExMuslims are hardly a “privileged” group and they are silenced in many spaces. I’m copying it from Benson’s site. (I’ll save my own thoughts for below.)

As Exmuslims, we critique Islam because there are many aspects of Islam that need to be critiqued. In particular, we seek to oppose Islam’s apostasy codes, which are oppressive and lead to persecution.

We have found it is quite difficult to get some people to listen to our stories because they fear that acknowledging these issues will contribute to a critical view towards Islam.

The idea is that particularly reactionary teachings and aspects of belief that lead to critical judgements of Islam are in and of themselves prejudiced. The resulting logic of this is that Islam should have special privileges, in as much as basic human conscience and ethical critical judgement of people living in a secular culture should not apply, or be expressed, towards Islam.

The fact that criticism exists, is the offence.

Effectively, this is to propose a kind of proxy blasphemy code and apostasy code, wherein the liberal secular space defers to Islamic taboos. Dissenting Muslims and Exmuslims have to conform to these proxy codes too. Everyone else is free to critique their own religion, and other faiths and ideas too. But Islam must be protected.

However, Muslims are free to critique all religions, belief systems and moralities, because evangelising Islam, and proffering critique and judgement is not only a divine prerogative, but the closing down of ethical, critical judgement towards Islam is also a divine right.

As we can see, this is an ethical and moral mess.

This is an aspect of liberal relativism that is morally flawed and unsustainable without damaging basic principles of liberal secularism. It also means that aspects of Islam that need to be criticised, like Islam’s apostasy codes, remain unexamined, and with that authority unquestioned, their capacity to hurt people and cause harm increases.

Another fear is that being critical of aspects of Islam manifests in prejudice towards Muslims, and this is an understandable response given how parts of the far-right do project generalising narratives of communal responsibility on Muslims. As Exmuslims, we understand this, because being from ethnic minorities ourselves (apart from growing numbers of former white converts) we are also prone to be in the targets of bigots who project their hostility onto anyone who ‘looks’ Muslim, whatever that is supposed to be.

The key to dealing with this is for the Left to take ownership of the issues that need to be critiqued, and do so through the prism of liberal secular values, so that they cannot be co-opted by the nationalist right, who have agendas that are not tolerant.

Sadly the instinct of relativism too often prevents this reckoning from occurring. The silencing of Exmuslims voices is the norm, although we are trying to change this.

There are three main layers of silencing of apostates voices. The first layer is the hardcore religious silencing, which includes notions that we deserve to be killed and harmed. Under that is a second layer of some Muslims who may not agree we should be persecuted, but don’t want to have these problematic aspects or religion talked about, because of feelings of embarassment, fear of the consequences, or cognitive dissonance regarding apostasy / blasphemy codes. The third layer underneath this is the relativism of white liberals who are often in concordance with silencing instincts over these issues, including silencing of Exmuslims, for the reasons we outlined earlier. Often, relativist liberals simply pretend we don’t exist.

But silencing never works, and it only increases the problems.

It is important to understand that anti-Muslim bigotry is real. At the same time, the reality of the need for Islam to be critiqued has to be acknowledged by the Left, and by Muslims who live in liberal secular democracies too.

epilogue: Some of these issues were touched on by a Pakistani-Canadian Exmuslim called Eiynah, in a response to the recent heated debate over Ben Affleck’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show. You can read it here. Please do check it out.

The comment was posted after an article by Andrew Brown. The content of the article is almost entirely summed up by the title and subtitle, “Why I don’t believe people who say they loathe Islam but not Muslims: It is psychologically unnatural to claim that you hate an ideology without hating the people in whose lives it is expressed.” I don’t know about you, but I for one am getting sick of people declaring something to be “natural”, or in this case “unnatural”, just because it suits their own preconceived notions. Does he cite any studies?

Here’s a first hand case of disliking a religion while liking individual. It is one that I expect a great many people will relate to.

I really adored my maternal grandmother. I know it’s commonplace to go on about how much a person liked his or her grandmother, but I had two grandmothers and I liked one much better than the other. She was very pretty, and a little bit vain. She was very athletic, a competitive speed skater. She smoked like a chimney, and was constantly nervous. She was funny and loud, but also very sweet and kind, one of the kindest people you could want to meet. However, what she was not was especially intellectual. When things would go wrong, she would clutch her medals and mutter, “Dieve mano,” quietly to herself. In a family of atheists and agnostics, she continued to believe.

Now, I think the Catholic Church is one of the most dangerous and damaging institutions on the planet. We only need to look at the recent revelations by retiring Cardinal Francis George to realize what a negative effect this organization has had. The dramatic, criminal actions are only the tip of a very destructive iceberg. That doesn’t begin to account for the emotional and psychological damage the Catholic Church does to almost all its adherents by telling them that sex is inherently sinful and shameful, or the physical toll endless, unwanted childbearing has on women. I just recently read that in Ireland caesarean section were avoided in favor of symphysiotomy, a dangerous procedure in which a woman’s pelvis is broken, because that’s what the Catholic Church wanted.

I am very much opposed to the ideology promoted by the Catholic Church, yet this had no effect on my feelings for my grandmother, a believing Catholic. I feel very confident that a great many people can make similar statements.

Similarly, I had a wonderful boyfriend in high school who was a Mormon. Mormonism was founded by the convicted con man Joseph Smith. I find it hard to believe that any sensible person could truly believe in that faith. Yet, my boyfriend was fabulous. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have married him, that’s how wonderful he was. Adorable, smart, sensitive, kind, sweet, and a practicing Mormon.

This experience is so commonplace, I’m a bit flabbergasted that Andrew Brown could make such a statement claiming that this is “unnatural.” If that is the case, my family is comprised of nothing but “psychologically unnatural” people, including my brother-in-law, a confirmed atheist whose parents were highly active in the Methodist Church and whose brother was a Presbyterian minister.

And what should I make of my acquaintances who are Libertarians or Marxists?

My mother has a friend, a practicing Jew, whose son converted and now works for Pat Robertson, of all people. They have conflicts, but she never stopped loving her son. She hates her son’s politics and religiously motivated ideology, but she does not hate her son.

Anyone living in a pluralistic society knows dozens of stories like this. I could go on indefinitely. A Jewish friend who I have heard complain very loudly of Christian privilege who fell in love with, and married, a Christian man. They must be going on over twenty years of marriage together. The more I think of it, the more people who come to mind.

ExMuslims, who find Islamic beliefs about apostasy directly threatening and oppressive, must have family members whom they have not stopped loving just because they stopped believing.

Why did The Guardian delete this comment? I think they should give this regularly silenced group a clearer indication of which of their community standards were violated.

While I’m discussing this atrocious article, which Jerry Coyne has deemed “click bait,” I might as well take a moment to defend Sam Harris. I’m hardly a Sam Harris fan, so you know that I writer is basically spouting lies when he pushes me to defending Harris. Andrew Brown says, ‘Stalin and Mao would have enthusiastically endorsed Sam Harris (above) when he wrote that “there are some beliefs so terrible that we are justified in killing people just for holding them”.’ This is taken so far out of context as to be deceitful. This quote comes from Harris’ book, The End of Faith. A couple of lines later, in the same paragraph, he writes, “There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

I don’t have a copy of The End of Faith at hand. When I read it years ago, I recall thinking that many of his arguments were sloppy and this may very well be one of them. Still, it is quite a stretch to call him genocidal, as Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have done.

The left has a problem with ExMuslims, and this is a problem we need to confront. Simply silencing ExMuslims and deleting their comments will not allow us to consider some of the inherent contradictions in our beliefs and how to reconcile them.

As I announced about a week or so ago, I’ve been doing some reading and research in hopes of writing something not entirely incoherent about the subject of free speech as it relates to the internet. So I decided to start by reading some background on the freedom of speech and I started with the books I already have lying around. (It’s nice being a blogger rather than an academic.)

A squirrel sitting on a stump in a Rhoddodendron bush.

Without God, how does this Sciurus carolinensis know that it’s a squirrel?

It’s often crossed my mind that the effect of the Reformation and the wars of religion on the Enlightenment is often underestimated. That a philosophical project to ground society’s institutions on something unrelated to religion should follow on the heels of a century of devastating wars caused by doctrinal differences hints to me at a close connection between the two.

So, when I came across a book a couple of months ago entitled The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, I bought it on impulse. The writer, Brad S. Gregory, it turns out, is motivated by more than simple intellectual curiosity. He is prodded to write by a disgust for the modern world. The object of his disgust appears to be the word “whatever.” This word, according to him, is brought forth from people’s lips by a condition known as “advanced secularization.” The book is enjoyable to read as long as he remains in the past, but when he tries to deal with the present one gets the painful image of a man trapped in a nightmarish hall of mirrors screaming to get out. Is our modern world really that bad? And even more bizarrely, is it really that bad because of our insistence on respecting human rights?

What horrific things are happening in the modern world? Is it a woman, miscarrying, screaming in pain for hours, perhaps days, because a Catholic hospital won’t administer certain treatments? (I’m actually thinking about a friend of mine, not Savita Halappanavar.) Is it a transperson being beaten up because someone thinks he or she is unnatural? (I’ve encountered this in my own life as well.) No, it’s opposing those things without being able to explain why you oppose them in a manner satisfactory to Brad S. Gregory.

The creation of modern, liberal states as the institutional guarantors of individual rights might have avoided the subjectivization of morality if modern moral philosophy had succeeded in its principal objective: to discover or create a convincing secular foundation for ethics and thus for a a shared moral community independent of inherited Christian or other religious beliefs. But that did not happen, whether with respect to the good, human priorities, or right and wrong.

And if one of the warring Christian sects had succeeded in establishing, to the satisfaction of everyone in sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, the truth of their religious tenets, there would have been no need for modern moral philosophy in the first place. Modern moral philosophy exists because Christianity failed. Furthermore, even if modern moral philosophy has failed, it doesn’t follow that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and flew up to the sky.

Regarding Jonathan Israel’s claim that the naturalism of some Enlightenment thinkers “secured a foundation for modern, liberal human rights, Gregory says,

The antireligious, metaphysical naturalism of radical Enlightenment thinkers neither did nor could do anything of he sort that Israel alleges given what empirical investigation by the natural sciences has disclosed since the eighteenth century. Assertions such as Israel’s ignore the lack of any connection whatsoever between normative moral claims, whatever they are, and the empirical investigation of natural regularities based on the assumptions of the natural sciences. As Christian Smith rightly puts it, “Matter and energy are not a moral source. They just exist and do what they do.” that includes the matter and energy that happen to be doing what they are doing, regardless of what they are doing in bodies of members of the species Homo sapiens that happen to exist today. If we restrict ourselves to the findings of the natural sciences, then feeding the poor, buying one’s fifth Lamborghini, and selling girls into sexual slavery are morally equivalent. By design and necessarily, the natural sciences per se are definitionally amoral and disclose no values, whether secular or religious – they are nihilistic in the etymological sense. Their practitioners discover no “dignity” or “goodness,” just as they discover no rights to “equality” or “liberty” or “autonomy” or anything else. Nor does anyone else who understands the demands of knowledge as dictated in the academy by the metaphysical naturalism and epistemological empiricism of the natural sciences. In their modern, secular forms in the Western world, all such rights are derived and adapted from Christianity and Judaism, religions in which it makes sense to say that rights are real because it is believed that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.

Another nice thing about being a blogger is that I don’t have to write in an academic style. 🙂

The basic thrust of Gregory’s argument is that, despite denials to the contrary, modern morality is derived from Christianity because there is no place else it could have come from. If contemporary non-believers don’t sell girls into sexual slavery, it’s because we have Christians in our collective past. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was living with a boyfriend whose parents were atheists of Chinese descent. I would have never been able to sleep at night. I guess I should presume no one offered him the right price. Lucky me.

A page later, after a delerious paragraph in which Gregory bizarrely asserts that without any god we have “no basis for regarding individual members of the species Homo sapiens as persons,” Gregory continues:

Nietzsche rightly saw that the belief in natural rights that sustained modern rationalist ethics was dependent on Christianity (and on the Judaism he likewise hated); hence atheism entailed nihilism, which cleared the way for Dionysian instinct. To which in recent decades especially, many Westerners have in effect added the expansive coda – “or whatever” – that has become increasingly apparent in the prevailing ethos.

I’m used to this sort of histrionic hand-wringing, in which the writer appears to believe that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, from people who appear to have little sense of history. To hear this from an actual historian is a surprise. Gregory, who is so bothered by the ethos of whatever, is perfectly aware of the corrupt behavior of Christians in the years preceding the Reformation. Does he really believe that none of these king and princes, after public displays of piety, didn’t quietly roll their eyes and think to themselves, “Whatever.”

There are days when I think that we atheists perform an invaluable function for believers. If ever they succeeded in fully suppressing us, they’d turn on each other.

Gregory could have written a much better book had he stuck to the field in which he was trained. Instead, he wrote an incoherent mess in which he tries to take on everyone from Kwame Anthony Appiah to Ray Kurzweil, with swipes at Sam Harris, Pat Benatar, and some guy on a dating site called evileddie in between. When you find yourself arguing with evileddie, it’s time to take a break – which I’ll do now.