Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Atheism, Cults and Toxicity

newatheismMy recent exchanges with Jerry Coyne and one of his followers eerily reminded me of previous exchanges I have had with a few biblical scholars: Larry Hurtado, Chris Keith, James McGrath, and others, as well as follows of Acharya S / D.M. Murdock.

Then last night I happened to read the following:

The American Family Foundation says the following attributes are characteristic of a cult:

  • The group members display an excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to an individual.
  • The group members are preoccupied with bringing in new members. Members are expected to devote inordinate amount of time to the group.
  • Members are preoccupied with making money.
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give personal goals and activities that were of interest to the group.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Most of these attributes, as we will see, are characteristic of the cult of New Atheism.

[There are other lists of characteristics. Understandable since “cult” covers a wide range of groups in the common usage of the term. I wonder if some of the less overtly authoritarian types are better described as “tribalism” — but we know what we don’t like when we see it, however we define it, I guess. The above characteristics are closer to what I meant by describing D.M. Murdock /Acharya S’s astrotheology advocates as “cultish”.]

Brown lists a collection of comments that were collected by one of Dawkins’ followers at a book signing. Dawkins tweeted to his followers the list:

“You’ve changed the very way I understand reality. Thank you Professor.”

“You’ve changed my life and my entire world. I cannot thank you enough.” “I owe you life. I am so grateful. Your books have helped me so much. Thank you.”

“I am unbelievably grateful for all you’ve done for me. You helped me out of delusion.”

“Thank you thank you thank you thank you Professor Dawkins. You saved my life.”

“With this kind of incense blown at him, it’s no wonder he is bewildered by criticism,” writes Brown. Like any religious text, Dawkins’ book The God Delusion contains contradictions that are ignored by his followers:

In The God Delusion itself he moves within 15 pages from condemning a pope who had baptized children taken away from Jewish parents to commending Nick Humphrey’s suggestion that the children of creationists be taken away because teaching your children religion is comparable to child abuse. So believers can always find a scripture where he agrees with them, which naturally cancels out the one where he doesn’t.

[Isn’t that what we’ve seen in some of the recent exchanges here over what Coyne and Harris are supposed to have said.] read more »

The Politics of the Muslim Controversy

Salman Rushdie condemns ‘hate-filled rhetoric’ of Islamic fanaticism, The Telegraph:

It’s hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.

If the rhetoric is the weapon then let’s find out why are we seeing so many taking it up today? Recent generations have seen several enemies — the rhetoric of nationalism, the rhetoric of corporate capitalism, the rhetoric of state socialism — and this is a new one. What has led to its emergence?

A word I dislike greatly, ‘Islamophobia’, has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. . . . 

It is right to feel phobia towards such matters. . . . To feel aversion towards such a force is not bigotry. It is the only possible response to the horror of events.

I can’t, as a citizen, avoid speaking of the horror of the world in this new age of religious mayhem, and of the language that conjures it up and justifies it, so that young men, including young Britons, led towards acts of extreme bestiality, believe themselves to be fighting a just war.

Salman Rushdie does not like the word Islamophobia but at the same time he self-servingly (probably without realizing it) distorts its meaning and the way it is used. I return to this word below where I address a Sam Harris quote.

Salman Rushdie is telling us that it is “language that conjures it up”. The image is one of Islamic violence that has been smouldering for centuries like a vulcanic demon impatiently waiting beneath the surface of a bubbling geothermal mud pool for someone to chant the terrible magic words to unleash it.

Rushdie’s failure to reference any historical thinking, or any political-social understanding, is distressing and a little frightening. read more »

Talking with a jihadi terrorist

talkingtoenemyAnyone interested in learning how terrorists, in particular suicide terrorists and jihadis, think, will find a wealth of interviews with terrorists themselves, their families and friends, as well as studies of courtroom interrogations and police records, in anthropologist Scot Atran’s Talking to the Enemy. (Sam Harris has scoffed at Atran’s views, dismissing them as lunacy. Are terrorist really driven by a desire to enter Paradise? Do they really take up murder simply because they are the most sincere and devout of Muslims and simply because believe jihad is commanded by Allah? Does Atran really blame male bonding in soccer matches for terrorism! Perhaps this post will help shed a little light on where Atran is coming from.)

Here I outline the career, thoughts and feelings of one such interviewee as I came to understand him through the detailed interview and description of time spent with him by Atran. Most of the material is based on chapter 8, titled “Farhin’s Way”. Farhin is the Indonesian terrorist interviewee.

Of course this post can only be my own understandings based on my own reading of Atran’s book. To best grasp the character of Farhin it is best to read the book for oneself. One thing should emerge by the time one has finished this chapter (or even this post) — Farhin is driven by more complex motivations than the Islamic faith that millions follow today. Harris has even suggested it is the ecstatic hope of Paradise that drives suicide bombers. There is no place for such a simplistic (and fictional) view in Farhin’s mind. And the Farhin case study is found in many ways repeated many times over among the other terrorists whose lives we learn about in this book.

The chapter opens with a description of three Bali bombers who were executed by firing squad.

Their last social act while alive was to shout the words, “Allahu Akbar” (Got is Greatest), at their executioners, who then shot them each dead through the heart. (p. 119) read more »

Someone get Scott Atran to tell us which soccer club these guys belonged to. — Tweet from Sam Harris

Nigeria's Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141

Nigeria’s Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141

The title was a tweet by Sam Harris: https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/337313832814919680 in response to the horrific terrorist murder of Lee Rigby in London. I told someone in a recent comment that I would do a post explaining my perspective on what lies behind Harris’s response. (In that same comment thread one can see a video in which Sott Atran goes some way to explaining what a soccer club has to do with terrorism.)

Firstly, who is Scott Atran? From Wikipedia:

Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a

  • Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris,
  • Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England,
  • Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York,
  • and also holds offices at the University of Michigan.

He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders. . . .

. . . he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. . . .

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan, and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East. . . .

Atran’s debates with “new atheists” Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between “new atheists” who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, or worse, and those like Atran who see unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.

Atran has taught at

  • Cambridge University,
  • Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
  • and the École des Hautes Études in Paris.

He is currently

  • a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research
  • and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure.
  • He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan,
  • presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City,
  • senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University,
  • and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

I am belatedly catching up with two of his books, In Gods We Trust and Talking to the Enemy, after having read a few of his scholarly journal and online writings.

I mentioned Atran’s video presentation — there is also follow up to that and Atran’s exchanges with Sam Harris at The Reality Club, Beyond Belief webpage (note on that page there are several in depth comments by Atran). Of his exchange with Sam Harris he writes: read more »

Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists

Disclaimer: this post expresses my own view entirely. Others who also have posted on this blog may or may not think quite differently.

.

Time to get dirty hands and write about something important. Something unhealthy has been happening in the name of criticizing “tenets of religious belief . . . bad ideas and behaviors.” Prominent public intellectuals, in the name criticizing harmful religious beliefs, have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance.

Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.Murtaza Hussain

Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.

Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.

After reading the several articles and related links to which Coyne and Harris have been responding (Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia) I believe that Coyne’s rebuttals do not stand. Coyne, Harris and Dawkins, for all their intellectual magnificence in other fields, are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war.

Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?

I am an atheist. I have experienced some of the best and worst of religion. I wish for a world where humanity has discovered that religion is long past its “use by” date. I believe that the Abrahamic religions in particular are responsible for immeasurable sufferings and torments among societies and individuals. I have no time for their belief systems. The sooner we all outgrow our awe of our holy books the better. (None of this means I believe in attacking individuals for their beliefs. There is a difference between criticizing belief systems and targeting individuals over their personal faith.)

I have compared different varieties of Christianity today with the various drugs on the market. Vapid Anglicanism is a mild aspirin. Happy Pentecostals are the happy marijuanas. I know of a few cults that are the deadly heroins. (They really do reduce addicts to ill health, poverty, anti-social life-styles and death, literally. Suicides, untreated illness, ignorance within and without the cults.)

I would not be surprised if I ever learned that I could do the same with the faiths of Judaism and Islam. read more »

All this Muslim business

Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and no doubt many other atheists have landed especially hard blows against the Muslim religion recently, prompted specifically by the recent wave of deadly protests over the trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims. So here are my two bits.

Sam Harris dismisses the idea that murderous violence of Muslim rioters should be ultimately blamed upon Western foreign policies (a euphemism for invasion, occupation, exploitation, support for violent overthrow of some dictators and democratically elected governments alike, and support for the violent entrenchment of other dictators among the Muslim states of the Middle East).

Sam Harris has countered that if it were not for the particular religious teachings of the Muslim religion then Muslims would not react with blood-lust against makers and facilitators of a satirical movie mocking their religion. Christians don’t react the same way when someone insults their faith. So it is clear that there is something more rotten in the state of Islam than in other religious faiths.

One of the problems (there are several) I have with this argument is that the Muslim violence we have been experiencing has not been with us until quite recent times. Violence and terrorism used to come from anarchists and secular political movements in Europe and the Middle East. The pioneer suicide bombers (in Lebanon in the 1980s) included Christians and Socialists (See Dying to Win by Richard Pape). The current wave of Muslim violence is not one of history’s constants but is a new thing.

Presumably Sam Harris’s complaint is that a more civilized religion would not see its adherents so seethe in response to whatever geopolitical shifts or Western policy intrusions into the Middle East have occurred in recent times, so that when an insulting work raises its head, devotees of more benign faiths would still manage to behave themselves.

But that just leads to the next question: Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule? And another question: How do we explain the quiet of the Muslims for so long until quite recent times? Did no one ever publish a blasphemous or satirical cartoon or work until recent times? Or did Muslim communities generally ignore anything like that however offended they may have personally been? read more »