Why the War between New Atheists and Other (“Progressive”) Atheists?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Kyle Kulinski-Glenn Greenwald exchange arose as a response to Kyle’s earlier video calling for a “cease fire” between New Atheists and other atheists. This post backtracks and looks at that video before resuming the Glenn Greenwald exchange.

During the exchange we were advised to view Kyle’s earlier video, New Atheists Vs Progressives — Proposing A Ceasefire, the one that Glenn Greenwald was responding to specifically. So I dutifully paused to check it out and was glad I did.

I’ll start with Kyle’s proposals in that video before presenting another paraphrase/transcript of Glenn G’s subsequent remarks and commentary.

Kyle wishes that both sides, New Atheists and others he calls Progressives, would


His argument sounds mathematically reasonable. If we agree with someone on a dozen key points that are very important to both of us and disagree on only one other one, then surely we should not be pouring scorn upon each other as if the other is beyond the pale.

Glenn Greenwald’s response demolished that point’s mathematical certainty, however. If I agree with Picklzanjam on feminist issues, gay rights, religion-is-bad, beer-is-good, etc etc etc etc — but after ticking all those check boxes Picklzanjam says he is also a white supremacist racist, then I’m not going to treat him as a good buddy I can get along with just because we agree on all of the other issues.

Kyle appeared to understand this point but later he wanted to push home his belief that people like Sam Harris are not really extremist in any of their views. I will return to that objection later when I cite Glenn G’s views on that view.

Second, Kyle wishes critics of the New Atheists would….


Here’s where I part company, to some extent, with a number of other atheists who are more activist in their critical stance against religion. Firstly I need to say I wish people did not feel a need for religion. Second, on a personal level I think religion sucks for a whole range of reasons. Third, I particularly deplore fundamentalist type cults and organizations for the particular harms that they can do — people literally die because of their teachings and practices, and some suffer the pain of a living death as a result of other practices and teachings.

Having said that, if I have to criticize any religion it is going to be the one(s) I know the best from personal experience. I understand Christianity and certain forms of it far better than, say, Islam or Hinduism, and am in a position to criticize with the benefit of deep personal knowledge, experience and additional studies (mostly from scholarly specialists) on these particular religions. I am in no such position to criticize any other religion.

Furthermore, because I can speak from experience (as well as with some independently informed understanding of certain aspects of Christianity), I know I am in no position to ridicule or attack Christians who hold beliefs I reject. I understand too well how a devout believer will never be persuaded by any arguments from an atheist or any other critic of their religion. Those few who say they have been persuaded to rethink their deep faith through rational argument, I suspect, were already in a space where they were beginning to question their beliefs as a consequence of a range of other factors.

A good many social scientists assure us that there is strong research evidence to support the view that our rational faculties are very often in the service of other less obvious motivations but they give social respectability (rationalization) to those other drives — “to reduce uncertainty, to impress other people, to gain status” etc.

The only way, pretty much, to extract a fundamentalist or cult-member from their beliefs is to find a way to isolate them from their support network as the first step. The follow up needs to address perceptions and information, not rational arguments over doctrinal beliefs. Rational argument alone doesn’t work. Not because people are stupid, but because the religious mind is not grounded in rational arguments. If it appears to be rationally grounded the rationality is (I would say) always a rationalization decorating and hiding other drives.

Books attacking doctrines probably do more for the choir and interested bystanders along with the believers who are already in the process of “losing their religion” (nothing wrong with that) than they do in deconverting hard-core fundamentalists.

Why don’t I attack Islam? I don’t see the point. The real question of importance is to understand why a tiny few people commit murderous violence. Sure some of them say it’s because of their religion, but they also says it’s because of other things, too, and we know there are many more who believe the same things but reject violent action. What we need to understand is why some people do and say what they do. I have found a lot of rewarding insights into this question by reading the works (and research) of anthropologists and neuro-psychologists and other social scientists. One consistent message is clear: people do not become violent jihadists simply because in a devout moment they read and believed a certain passage in the Koran. Most Muslims abhor Islamist violence so it strikes me as counterproductive to try to attack the Muslim religion. Most Muslims who abhor violence need to be given all the support we can offer.

It would achieve nothing to attack Christianity because some Christians believed God wanted them to kill abortion doctors. It would achieve nothing to attack Judaism because some Jews believe they have a God-ordained responsibility to take land from Palestinian Arabs. I’d rather support the religious Jews who do not believe that.


As we saw in the previous post Glenn Greenwald certainly does make distinctions between Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. My own problem has been with followers of people like Sam Harris (such as Jerry Coyne) and if I have not addressed the caveats it is because I have been struck most by their apparently blatant rejection and refusal to consider the research of social scientists and neurologists that belies their assertions.

Apart from that I have nothing to add to Greenwald’s response (below).


I don’t have a serious problem with the philosophy of conservatism as founded by Edmund Burke. Those branded today as “neoconservatives” appear in significant ways to me to be reactionary rather than conservative.

I’m happy to jettison the label but I cannot ignore the fact that at least in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Coyne that one finds public support for the Western (in particular US, UK, France, Israel, Australia) policies of belligerent confrontation against non-aligned Muslim states and people, and a fanning of public fear of Islam that facilitates support for this policy, and the standard methods of an everlasting “war on terror”:

We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas. (End of Faith, p. 53)

The truth is, as Dershowitz points out, that “no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights, been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians, tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace.” (End of Faith, p. 135)

There are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers.33 (End of Faith, p. 194)

If we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that pistol rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war. (End of Faith, p. 197)

I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage.36 (End of Faith, p. 198)

Life under the Taliban is, to a first approximation, what millions of Muslims around the world want to impose on the rest of us. (End of Faith, p. 203)

The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy (Reality of Islam, 2006)

The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. (Reality of Islam, 2006)

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. (Reality of Islam, 2006)



It is self-evident and cannot be denied that religion is a factor, but the “root problem & cause of terrorism”? I can’t “admit” any of those flippant denunciations by uninformed atheists who blamed the Christian religion as the root problem and cause of the strife in Northern Ireland, and I cannot “admit” that the Muslim religion is the root problem and cause of the Palestinian hostility towards Israel.

But perhaps “sometimes” it is the root problem and cause? We certainly should be open to the possibility but at the same time we need to be open to testing that hypothesis in each case. To this end we need also to be sensitive to our own Western cultural history of viewing Muslims, the Muslim culture and Arabs (in particular most Middle Easterners and even other Eastern races) through a demeaning perspective as mysterious, dangerous or threatening, less than our equals. And atheists like anyone else have a responsibility to be open to scientific (including social scientific) research into human behaviour just as we are into the findings of biology and astronomy. I have attempted (as far as I reasonably can given that I have other real life responsibilities and am not a full-time student or professional scholar) to inform myself of what factors underlie terrorism and the nature of religion itself in the light of relevant contemporary specialists (I have been lucky enough to have been able to purchase dozens of scholarly books and access scores of scholarly articles) and I have not found anything in the research findings of neurology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science and history that lends any support to “religion” per se being “the root problem & cause of terrorism”.

In the discussion with Glenn Greenwald I realized that not even Glenn has had the chance to inform himself of the research into the nature and workings of religion and religious belief in relation to human behaviour.

Kyle’s advice for the New Atheists

The 50% rule applies to both sides, which makes sense given that two 50%s makes up both sides.

So start with point 2 here:

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I understand that among those who are “anti-Muslims” see themselves as defenders of Western civilization and values that they (and I) believe are historically “good”. They fear an excessive influx of alien cultures. No doubt in some places the difficulties are more acute (and mismanaged) than in others. Recent readings have led me to wonder if hostility to “the other” is not so much the consequence of the failure to appreciate the full humanity and “sameness” of the other as it the result of a concern to maintain the power and dominance (and identity) of one’s own group. But that’s from a 2001 publication (Boyer, Religion Explained) and I don’t know what research and testing of this hypothesis has been churned out since.

As for the second part of Kyle’s point here — “know your facts on right wing terrorism” — Yes, indeed. But don’t just know the details listed in the news media; know also how all terrorism, Islamic and other types, is studied and explained by social scientists. I’ve attempted to post some awareness of this in the past and am currently doing so again with my new series on the book Friction.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.16.39 pm

There is something missing in Kyle’s advice here. He is deploring State violence as immoral but he does not seem to reference any form of counter violence responding to State violence. Would we not expect to see that? Is that not what the history of the Middle East and other areas subject to violent takeovers of resources and strategic areas have documented? When people’s homes and neighbourhoods are bombed would we not expect to see the side of the victims attempting at some point to return the same damage upon the States responsible? Is it just possible, is it a proposition at least worth testing, that Islamic religion has become a medium through which those who identify themselves with the victims of State violence are retaliating against the war initiated by Western States for power, control, natural resources? No no no — that’s not a justification of anything. If we deplore one war crime we can never excuse another war crime or crime of any sort in retaliation. But understanding is important.

Do people really study a sacred text (or several of them) and then, contrary to the way millions of their peers study and believe those same texts, decide that God is commanding them through those very texts to go out and kill others — all in the absence of any other motivating or dispositional factors? Surely that does not sound like the way normal humans work.

I am also conscious of Hector Avalos’s take on religious violence and realize I have not addressed that in the context of any of these discussions yet. I know this is something worth revisiting.

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As I said above, “No no no — that’s not a justification of anything. If we deplore one war crime we can never excuse another war crime or crime of any sort in retaliation. But understanding is important.”

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Of course Sam Harris says other (non-religious) factors are involved but the message he conveys is that these are relatively superficial in comparison with the religious factor, and that the religious factor is the critical driver wherever it is found, not any of the other associated factors. That’s not “admitting” that other factors are ever “the root problem and cause”.

Next post will complete Glenn Greewald’s response.

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52 thoughts on “Why the War between New Atheists and Other (“Progressive”) Atheists?”

  1. This is fair and balanced. On one point “Having said that, if I have to criticize any religion it is going to be the one(s) I know the best from personal experience. I understand Christianity and certain forms of it far better than, say, Islam or Hinduism, and am in a position to criticize with the benefit of deep personal knowledge, experience and additional studies (mostly from scholarly specialists) on these particular religions. I am in no such position to criticize any other religion.” Does it strike you as odd that there is a much criticism and attempted censorship from the anti-new athiest progressive camp toward people who grew up in Islam and were harmed physically and emotional by people from their community as there is toward Harris et. al.? It seems that qualification to carry a message is really irrelevant in this environment.

    1. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered instances of ex-Muslims attacking Islam but I have had two responses to those critics in the past:

      1. Some of them are well in a position to criticize what they have experienced and we would expect their voices to assist those Muslims who do work towards changes — in particular in those societies where the issues are really about the need for fundamental human rights. (The hypocrisy of our leaders whipping up public support for another war by pointing to the way the targeted enemy state treats its women is galling — the same leaders fully support the power and stability of regimes that practice the same and worse abuses if those states are our allies.)

      2. Some of the critics are evidently motivated not by clear headed and honestly informed criticism but by dishonest hate-filled revenge and their attacks will do nothing to support the moderates and reformers in their faith. In fact they undermine progressive movements within Islam.

      My own experience resonates when I see these critics. There are a number (relatively few) people who became badly embittered by their own cult experiences and their attacks on the cult were indeed very largely exaggerations and even lies. I had to wonder if they really understood very well what they were involved with in the first place. Perhaps their experience was part of an anomaly, something particularly and locally bad or distorted, but was not really typical.

      Some former Muslims or current Muslims who are critics of their religion no doubt deserve to be listened to but there are other former Muslims who do more damage with their criticisms and add their voices to the wider intolerance in our midst.

        1. I have not read any of her books but have only seen blurbs of them and skimmed her wikipedia entry. My impression from that limited information is that her view of Islam is shaped by her experiences of it in Somalia and closely related regions of the Middle East and parts of Africa.

          I am reminded of my approach to mainstream Christianity after I left religion behind and became an atheist. I had certainly experienced mainstream Christianity growing up and for again for a few years after I left an extreme cultish form of it, but my negative experiences from my own cult years (and these were augmented by my subsequent efforts to work with other ex-cultists from other groups) led me to see how even mainstream Christianity contained the seeds and structures that could so easily lead to extremist cultism. I have mentioned before how I initially objected to even working with mainstream religious organizations in social activist efforts because I opposed the motivation to present themselves as benign and positive forces in any way at all.

          To me it was all a cover for their real intentions to win converts — and to support a whole framework that made irrationality (faith) a respectable virtue in society. From that foundation all sorts of evils are possible and do happen at some point.

          So I can understand how experiences of the worst applications of a religion can lead one to become a strong critic of all forms of that religion.

          One of the reasons I have come to modify my views over time is that I have continued to try to understand what religion itself is all about, why we have it, and that has led me to rethink the whole place of religion in society. I became more tolerant and understanding. Perhaps that was partly also the result of Marlene Winnell‘s book (Leaving the Fold) that helped me so much in recovering from my worst experiences. A major theme of her advice was to learn to accept ourselves, to restore a fundamental acceptance and “love” for ourselves again (extremist religion teaches to loathe oneself, one’s nature, humanity….) — to understand and forgive and accept oneself.

          I guess the more I have done that, the more I have understood and forgiven myself for what I got myself involved in. And that, along with learning more about the psychology of religion and why people embrace religion generally and the function it serves in “our” lives, — I have lost my fierce hostility towards religion per se.

          1. Neil, thank you for the thoughtful reply. I understand her journey and I understand yours. Mine is not so different from yours though I confess I am not so ready as you to except the benign forms of Christianity from my (mental) criticism. Magical thinking is bad for the individual and bad for society and I certainly would not want to have false comfort. On the other hand, my mother who is in her final years is still a firm believer and I have done nothing to disavow her of her beliefs and the comfort she receives from them. I guess I realize I don’t know better than others what is best for them. But it if I believed something that is patently false, I would want people to point it out to me, even if it caused me some cognitive dissonance and discomfort.

            As for Ayaan, I didn’t come to know her until what some refer to as the regressive liberals (anti free speech) have worked to silence her. Some of her positions seem reasonable. I am sure some or more extreme than I would take. I am not qualified to comment on her plan to reform Islam (though with a father whose PhD was in Islam and having lived a great deal of my life in the Middle East I may be more qualified than some). What I don’t understand is rather than let her speak and rebut (which I think is your style), is why western liberals are trying to silence her. I mean, even Jon Stewart who I often have admired railroaded her in his interview and wouldn’t let her express her ideas.

            I don’t know the answer to the Middle East and the problem of violence in the Muslim community (which is mainly aimed at other Muslims). But I don’t think it is more western involvement – from a financial, political or pundit perspective. We have conquered, set up client states, funded governments and revolutionaries and now, sold lands and people to multi-national corporations and special interest groups, and exported “Christian” values. All of this has caused more grief than benefit. Exporting our secular humanist values seems to be the latest wave of western imperialism and just like the missionaries I knew, doomed to cause more grief than provide benefit.

            It seems to Ayaan’s approach of change from within will work better than the like of Harris telling them they are evil and/or the “regressives” telling her to shut up.

            1. I should add that I deplore the way Jehovah’s Witnesses have been permitted to set up a weekly stall at our university campus. Presumably they ply their love-bombing mostly on vulnerable overseas students isolated from their customary cultural supports. Of course I’d rather see anyone opt for freedom from religion than embrace it.

              As for the second ex-cultist critic who appeared the so bitter as to be out of touch with the reality of what most members experienced — I sometimes wondered if a person like that ever really was a member or was only very loosely associated with the cult and they were posing as ex-members as part of their campaign to damage the cult. The same suspicion might be applied to some supposedly ex-Muslims I have encountered in the past.

              1. Some JWs will engage in argument. It is not difficult to provide simple arguments that undermine their positions and to put these across to inquirers in the vicinity of their own propaganda stalls. A few examples: the date they give for the global Deluge of Noah is far too recent to be compatible with the geology, anthropology and history; their inability to explain “baptism for the dead”; their inability to explain the adoration by Thomas of the risen Lord as his God; their claim that the library of books known as the Bible is a single authoritative text when its contents were selected by the church long after it had fallen into apostasy under the control of Satan.

                Mainstream Islam ALSO contains seeds (Qur’an & Hadith) and structures (clerical education and decisions)
                that can give rise to “cult-like” activities, such as the Wahhabism, Salafism, the demand for a Global Caliphate, organizations like al-Murabitun, Hizb ut-Tahrir or Qutb’s “Muslim Brotherhood”.

                Islam is not an especially tolerant religion. Speaking personally I prefer to live in a country with some Christian background suitably enfeebled, though not to the point of “loving” surrender to its enemies, than within a Muslim; I may be called a “racist” or a “xxxphobe” because I remain more attached to my European cultural traditions than Arabian ones (e.g. music) but unlike US drones or ISIS blades, such words can never hurt me.

            2. “Regressive liberals” – ah, the new buzzword being thrown around by the likes of Maajid Nawaaz, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne the past month.

              At the end of the day, everyone, including the Left, have things which they are against and they want to speak out against. The idea that everyone writes and campaigns equally against all sorts of injustice is rubbish – we all “choose our battles”.
              The Left is driven by, amongst other things, protecting minorities, and fighting Imperialism, so it is natural that the Left will focus on the crimes of the US and Israel more than the crimes of Muslims, especially as Muslims are a minority in the West and are constantly subject to attack from all sorts of people. That doesn’t mean to say the Left embraces Islamism (which is the rubbish Maajid Nawaaz and co have been going around saying), it simply means the Left is focused more on other forms of injustices.

              Before I move onto Ayaan, let me make it clear that as a “free-speech fascist”, I deplore the idea of trying to stop someone from speaking at an event – I believe even the most horrible people, like Neo-Nazis, misogynists, and Islamophobes, should be allowed to speak at any university – you fight bigotry by exposing it, not trying to silence it. So when someone from the Left tries to stop people like Ayaan speaking at a campus, I am totally against it.

              However, the hypocrisy of the New Atheists and conservatives that the Left tries to stifle free-speech is quite astounding.

              First, let’s look at Ayaan. Here is an article Max Blumemnthal wrote on her:


              Max Blumenthal then wrote another response after he was attacked for his original article:


              Incidentally, Jerry Coyne had a serious problem with Max Blumenthal, and he went and wrote a scathing response defending Ayaan, and criticised Blumenthal, quoting right-wing neocon Daniel Mael to smear him.

              So Ayaan has a history of:
              a) lying about her past
              b) lying about Muslims
              c) simplifying things and blaming all the violence committed by Muslims on Islam (not radical Islamic, but Islam)
              d) indulging in inflammatory speech
              e) mixing with people who have been described as leading hate groups, such as Robert Spencer and Pamella Geller, by the SPLC

              That’s the reason why some on the Left have tried to get her banned from campus, and to stop her from receiving an honourary degree. Now I don’t agree with this at all, I am just pointing out that there is a reason.
              Now imagine that there was a white-supremacist, who had lied about black people, simplified things and blamed the high incarceration of blacks in America on them being black, indulged in inflammatory speech, said blacks must stop following their black culture, and mixed with known racists – do you think New Atheists would sit there criticising the Left as being regressive if they tried to get this individual banned from speaking at university? I highly doubt it, they would probably sit there and say that free speech doesn’t mean hate speech, and this guy shouldn’t be allowed to use a university campus to further his views – so it seems New Atheists aren’t outraged by the fact that the Left is trying to stifle speech, they are only outraged when the Left tries to stop someone they like speaking at campus.

              The most ironic thing I found was that the New Atheists sit there criticising the Left for stifling free speech, yet when the Left allow Islamists to voice their opinion, such as when The Guardian had an interview with the head of a non-violent Islamist group in the UK, the New Atheists were outraged and Maajid Nawaaz accused the Left of embracism “Islamism”.

            3. Lowen, I have followed Ayaan since her first book, ‘Infidel’,which affected me quite deeply. I can identify with her in some small way because of my own journey from Christian fundamentalism, which in no way compares to the extremes she had to escape from.

              I find her a thoughtful person who has valid things to say about the world. I don’t agree with everything she says, but that goes for almost everyone, I’d wager. I certainly don’t understand the vitriol aimed at her from certain quarters, or attempts to ‘shut her down’, exclude her from university campuses and the like. She is better in print than live, as the John Stewart interview showed – as with you, I was dismayed at the line he took, as an interviewer that I generally enjoyed. I support her charity that seeks to raise awareness of FGM, forced marriage, ‘honour’ killings and related issues.

              She is in my view someone whose work needs to be read, rather than ‘read about’, since there is so much inflammatory material attacking her out there.

              1. I certainly don’t understand the vitriol aimed at her from certain quarters, or attempts to ‘shut her down’, exclude her from university campuses and the like.

                So instead of addressing why some people are very critical of her, you basically chose to ignore it and continue with your victimising?

        2. Since your question I have had some time to learn a little more about Ayaan Hirsi Magan/Ali. I began by reading some of her works, both early and late, and other works for and against her. My conclusion is that Ayaan is a self-serving liar who has done very well for herself at the expense of others — to the hurt of many innocent people and to the benefit of many powerful bigots. More kindly, she simply wanted to get ahead like almost everyone else and succeeded the best way she knew how.

          Ayaan is definitely NOT a reliable source for how Islam is practiced anywhere by anyone, especially in Somalia. Any correlation between her claims and the facts are purely opportunistic.

          1. That’s quite a conclusion. My question is asked out of ignorance as she seems quite polarizing. At some point, bullet points of your key findings would be interesting and useful. Thanks!

            1. There was a 2009 Dutch TV program that raised questions about her biographical details and it appears that she is in the US as a result of the truth catching up with her in the Netherlands. The justifiable criticisms she continues to make about Islam are found among other less opportunistic sources who are better informed and placed to have more positive outcomes.

              1. Irrelevant. There are others in the heart of the Muslim religion, scholars and imams and other lay Muslims, who have been working for reform and who are far more credible.

                Reforming Islam, by the way, is a project that is distinct from the question of terrorism. Terrorism’s Islam is related to a primarily Saudi-funded effort to push a Wahhabist style of Islam into the dominant position of Muslim discourse throughout the world. That certainly needs countering, but is a different problem from the more general question of reform.

                Muslim values and practices are shown to be modified by the societies in which their adherents live, so Western mainstream (as distinct from Wahhabist types that unfortunately dominate in some regions of the UK) Islam is generally more moderate to begin with. That fact indicates that part of a more general reform process (certainly not the only part) could involve support for social and human rights progressives and activists in other countries.

                Islamism and cult forms of Islam that are associated with terrorism are a separate question: the issues are complex and I can’t pretend to know the answers, but many political, sociological, anthropological, psychological minds are dedicated to working on that.

                The reason I don’t say the religious Islamic minds are also working on it — of course they are — is that very often it seems they have no more power than a parent has over a willful teenager. Very often the Muslim community will expel such extremists with the result that the person is then propelled to the next stage towards violence. As for those mosques that support terrorism we need to identify and confront the causes and ways their influence spreads.

              2. I live very close to the incidents of yesterday. We could hear the shooting. But, I don’t think that terrorism is the biggest issue. On scale, a few people are actually harmed by terrorism. It is the lack of promoting human rights that seem to be concomitant with religious practice that concerns me much more…and it seems to me that in no religion is this more of a problem than in Islam–even moderate Islam. I don’t know if Ayaan has good or even useful ideas about reform. But it seems to me the more voices from those within or those who survived the culture the better just like I think those Christians or survivors of Christianity who vocally appose Christians who would curtail human rights and call for reform are playing a valuable role.

              3. Agreed. Unfortunately Islamists (including the non-violent ones) reject democracy and human rights as enshrined in the UNHCR. I don’t know if you read any of “anon’s” comments here. I understand he is an Islamist living in a South-East Asian country and has in discussions here made this very plain. He says he believes in human rights but that our Western standards are “human” and inadequate by comparison with those that come from above the State and from Allah himself. Democracy is the matrix of all our evils (democracy is equated in his comments with all the injustices and inequalities and corruption in the West), being a human government and thus a form of idolatry.

                I don’t think there is any more chance of “getting through” to someone like anon than there ever was for anyone getting through to me when I was a member of a cult.

                I can imagine you shudder to realize what you were so close to.

              4. From Islamic Scripture Is Not the Problem — And Funding Muslim Reformers Is Not the Solution by William McCants. . . .

                Ayaan Hirsi Ali is correct that darker passages of Islamic Scripture endorse violence and prescribe harsh punishments for moral or theological infractions. And she is right that in many Muslim countries, too many citizens still think it is a good idea to kill people for apostasy, stone them for adultery, and beat women for disobedience just because Scripture says so. But Hirsi Ali is profoundly wrong when she argues that Islamic Scripture causes Muslim terrorism and thus that the U.S. government should fund Muslim dissidents to reform Islam.

                Islamic Scripture is a constant. Over 1,000 years old, it is composed of the Koran and hadith, words and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by his followers. Muslims who want to justify violence can
                find plenty of passages to cite—collections of hadith run into the hundreds of volumes. Nevertheless, Muslim political behavior has varied greatly throughout history. Some Muslims have cited Scripture to justify violence, and some have cited it to justify peace. If Scripture is a constant but the behavior of its followers is not, then one should look elsewhere to explain why some Muslims engage in terrorism. And if Islamic Scripture doesn’t automatically lead to terrorism, then one should not expect the reform of Islam to end terrorism. Indeed, even the ultratextualist followers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State ignore Scripture that is inconvenient for their brutal brand of insurgency.

                Consider the Gospels, Scriptures that advocate far less violence than the Koran or the Hebrew Bible. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek. Yet the crusaders murdered thousands in their rampage across the Middle East, and U.S. President George W. Bush, a devout Christian, invaded Iraq without military provocation. Readers may object to these examples, arguing that other factors were at play—but that is exactly the point: Christian Scripture doesn’t always determine the behavior of its followers, and the same goes for Islamic Scripture.

              5. It seems it is human nature to want what others have and to be willing to take advantage of them to do so. It is our nature to form in groups based on location, family, location, culture, and gender and cooperate with ingroup to take advantage of others. Where there is pervasive belief in magical thinking/wish fulfillment in the in group, it become easy to believe that “god” is part of the ingroup and have this god be the source of morality, making easier still to to view others as less than and thus unworthy of moral behavior/mercy. When the ingroup has the word of god to support their aggressions so much the better.

                It is humans that are the aggressors and actors. But the humans use tools to do that. We (including most of us in the US) see no problem in restricting certain tools that are used for these aggressions (guns, etc.), but for some reason, see benefit in promulgating the most widely-used tool – religious texts and the magical thinking behind them. I do think a program to defang Islam and align it with values of humanism much as Bishop Spong is working toward with Christianity might be of some use. I popped into a mega church in the neighborhood just to see what they were preaching. It was humanism with god language combined with a support group. Nothing of the fundamentalism/eschatological/apocalyptic/we are the chosen people messages of my youth.

                At some point, we as a race have to stop thinking that there is a god who knows who we are and wants us to do certain things. We have to stop thinking on a personal level that we are talking to a god, and that this god somehow does favors for us when we ask in the right way after behaving in the right way including the favors of making it possible to take things we want from humans not in our particular ingroup (I was at a Thanksgiving dinner where the food prayer included asking for our football team to win).

                It seems to me public policy and foreign policy have a role to play in this. As opposed to prayer, putting money behind a program can actually make a difference.

              6. IT seems that this could be applied to any religion. Are there parts of this that Aayan disagrees with? Does she call for additional things beyond this that humanists would find abhorrent? I wonder how “Anon” would reply to this?


                We reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam. We invite our fellow Muslims and neighbors to join us.

                We reject bigotry, oppression and violence against all people based on any prejudice, including ethnicity, gender, language, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression.

                We are for secular governance, democracy and liberty.

                Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights.

                We stand for peace, human rights and secular governance. Please stand with us!

              7. From what I’ve read about Ayaan’s ideas, she is in sync with the moderate objectives above and thinks for them to happen that Islam must reform or discard the following tenets of the faith:

                • The infallible status of Muhammad and the literal understanding of the Koran

                • Giving priority to the afterlife over the present day

                • Sharia law “and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence”

                • The empowerment of individuals to enforce such laws and customs

                • Jihad.

                To varying degree, the same thing could be said about Christianity and is happening in Christianity. If you get rid of 1 and 2 (for either religion) 3 follows closely and enforcement of law quickly moves to the role of a secular state.

              8. For the US to fund moderate or reformist Muslims to counter Saudi Arabia’s funding of Wabbahist Islam would be counterproductive. Such groups would immediately be loathed, attacked as pawns of US foreign policy and the whole exercise counterproductive.

                Ayan’s proposal draws on the flawed comparison with US foreign policy towards communism, overlooking the fact that the US sought to destroy, not reform, communism. For the US to be involved in such a way would play right into the hands of the extremists whose violence and extremist talk is already succeeding in polarizing society to see itself as involved in a war between the West and Islam.

                To the extent that extremists condemn non-extremist Muslims as apostates, US support for any branch of Islam is only going to pour fuel on the fire they are fanning.

                We see that Muslims do modify their practices, views, beliefs, to match the society they live in — hence the differences between Muslims in the US and those in North Pakistan, for example. Push for human rights and the religions take care of themselves. There are many in the Middle East who really do want democracy and human rights as we saw with the Arab Spring. Next time it might be a good idea if the Western governments gave those people more support against their rulers instead of standing back and sighing with relief as tyrants restored order.

                Where there are problems in the West with Muslim integration, where especially youth are town between two cultures and are seeking escape from a hostile no-man’s land, we have a different problem. Reforming Islam there is irrelevant. There are other priorities. Wahhabism needs to be confronted (it cannot be reformed) and the roots of the problem of social integration need to be addressed.

        1. How and why would anyone ever even contemplate the idea of herding any other people to which we do not belong? That sounds about as imperialistic and supremacist as anything could ever possibly be. Perhaps supremacists cannot conceive of how support can be offered “outsiders” without having to actually “herd” them.

          1. “Perhaps supremacists cannot conceive of how support can be offered “outsiders” without having to actually “herd” them.”

            -That was meant as an allusion to the famous equivalent quote about atheists, so it’s not just meant to be used in reference to outsiders.
            But I still cannot conceive of how support can be offered to “outsiders” with any substantial impact without having to actually “herd” them (and herding them probably wouldn’t even help). And I still can’t see anything anyone in the First World can do that could substantially and permanently aid the progress of so-called “moderate” Muslims.

  2. Atheism is such a negative thing. If our minds are clear of god concepts and images, lucky for us. But we cannot deny believers that their god exists, as it is right their in their minds.
    I think it was Mao who wrote “Let a thousand flowers bloom”.
    Why not just let a billion minds create their own gods? (And believe theirs is the only one).

  3. “Those branded today as “neoconservatives” appear in significant ways to me to be reactionary rather than conservative.”

    -I don’t even think they’re reactionary; they’re just antagonistic against whatever countries their backers tell them to be antagonistic against. I suspect the driving belief behind neoconnery is the belief the entire world rightfully belongs to the U.S., just like India once belonged to Britain.

    “I’m happy to jettison the label but I cannot ignore the fact that at least in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Coyne that one finds public support for the Western (in particular US, UK, France, Israel, Australia) policies of belligerent confrontation against non-aligned Muslim states and people, and a fanning of public fear of Islam that facilitates support for this policy, and the standard methods of an everlasting “war on terror”:”

    -Coyne calls for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan (I think Iraq and Syria are very much salvageable; Afghanistan, not so much). Is this “support for the Western policies of belligerent confrontation”? Harris focuses more on military tactics, not which countries to attack. And the only Muslim-majority nuclear state is… Pakistan. I’m certainly fine with belligerent confrontation with Turkey.

    “I cannot “admit” that the Muslim religion is the root problem and cause of the Palestinian hostility towards Israel.”

    -Me neither. Some of the first anti-occupation terrorists were Christian (e.g., Sirhan Sirhan). The first Palestinian resistance groups were secular-nationalist.

    “Is it just possible, is it a proposition at least worth testing, that Islamic religion has become a medium through which those who identify themselves with the victims of State violence are retaliating against the war initiated by Western States for power, control, natural resources?”

    -The USSR (the primary Great Power backer of Old Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq) was a Western state? I guess you could call it that. And it was the Iraq War that ended up bringing the al-Malaki government to power, which was extremely popular in the Iraqi South. Of course, Obama then self-admittedly used the Islamic State to overthrow Maliki.

  4. *sigh* Sam Harris, aside from his shitty views about Muslims is a libertarian arsehole and Glen Greenwald is so progressive he has no problem with his staff writers describing other muslims as porch monkeys. Rebecca Watson cries white woman’s tears while Richard Dawkins is a privileged white man who cant see past his own privileged. Jeremey Corbin is a useful idiot and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a self hating traitor. Michael Nugent is an apologist for rapists but PZ Myers is an alleged sex criminal and so is Michael Shermer, and come to think of it Ben Radford as well. Oh and Jaqueline Glenn is a plagiarist just like cj weinstein.

    I could go on and on and on…

    TBH it was all this pathetic power playing and point scoring that drove me out of the on -line atheist “scene” and brought me to a blog about something as noncontroversial as whether there was a historical Jesus.

        1. And you know whats funny, my whole comment was meant as a satire on both their house’s but the replies were people defending the atheists on their side and totally ignoring the reductio ad absurdum accusations I made against the “enemy”.

          They’re all flipping cultists.

  5. Maz Hussain isn’t American, I am sure he didn’t mean it in the racist way.


    And BTW, Glenn Greenwald doesn’t control what his staff can or cannot write, if he feels they are being racist ir sexist or any other ist, I am sure he will take disciplinary action against them, if any action wasn’t taken against Maz Hussain, it is because Glenn knows Maz did not mean to use the word in a bigoted manner.

  6. Well, Neil, if you’re interested in “neocon” quotes, how about this one from Dawkins (which he has now deleted from his website, but you can still view on the Internet Web Archive)


    Dawkins: Given that Islam is such an unmitigated evil, and looking at the map supplied by this Christian site, should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? My answer is still no, but I thought it was worth raising the question. Given that atheism hasn’t any chance in Africa for the foreseeable future, could our enemy’s enemy be our friend?

    This is typical Dawkins, he will never explicitly call for war, but is instead a lot more subtle into influencing people that we might need to go to war.

    Unlike Hitchens who was a lot more explicit:

    Hitchens: Secularism is not just a smug attitude. It is a possible way of democratic and pluralistic life that only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state.

    Hitchens: It is not possible for me to say, Well, you pursue your Shiite dream of a hidden imam and I pursue my study of Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and the world is big enough for both of us. The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.

  7. There are different definitions of “bigotry” in dictionaries but the basic meaning appears to be stubborn intolerance of other creeds or opinions. That may well apply to an individual called Ayaan Hirsi, whom I have not studied. But it could apply equally, or even more strongly, to a much larger number of Muslims, especially those imams who proclaim their intolerance of others; and these present a more difficult problem for us all – Wahhabis for a start.

    Just for the record, I have opposed RAF bombing of Syrian targets on grounds similar to those advanced by MPs Julian Lewis and David Davis, and written to the press accordingly.

    1. Making sweeping statements against “a large (undefined) number” of Muslims generally is less helpful than naming specific ones that you consider are guilty of doing society a disservice. I take it you are living in the UK. What part? My understanding is that the UK situation is (thankfully) not typical of that found in other Western countries such as North America and Australia.

      1. I now live in Norfolk, and previously in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which was almost entirely “white” for most of my life and work, but now includes one of the highest ethnic minority populations in Europe, including the fifth largest Muslim population in England and the third largest in London (according to official figures unlikely to be underestimates). I taught Muslim pupils, during the transition, who were not much of a problem – this came from “white socialists” in local government who e.g. prohibited “survival English lessons” for Bangladeshi immigrants as “racism”. I have no personal complaints against Muslims, except those who used my aunt’s former dress shop as a base for a foiled sky-bomb plot and those Councillors who wanted to close the William Morris museum. In Norwich I was acquainted, some time ago, with people who ran the Mosque for the bi-metallist group called al-Murabitun whose Sheikh proposed that, after victory, the Yahudi would be forced to engage in gladiatorial combat for TV entertainment,

        However, my opinions about Islamic bigotry in Britain AND other countries come from study of relevant literature and press reports. I have already mentioned Wahhabis – some mosques and madrassas in this country are Saudi-funded. More, when I post detailed documentation, not to immediately hand as I write.

        I would not describe the Qur’an as a particularly tolerant work.

        1. I am currently reading “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists” by Raffaello Pantucci. It is a serious scholarly study of the various British Muslim concentrations and their relationship to terrorism. Have only read the first two chapters so far but well worth every cent.

          Fortunately you do not have to deal with the Quran since it’s just a piece of inanimate paper and print. Most Muslims in the West, on the other hand, at least based on a combination of what I see in polls, other writings online and in print, and on my own personal experiences, are tolerant. An interesting insight into how many Muslims read or understand the Qur’an is found in the essays included in The Study Quran. Most Muslims interpret the Quran through that other collection of their holy scriptures where it is believed Muhammad explained or interpreted the sayings in the Quran.

          But more to the point, those who are involved in terrorism are for most part religiously illiterate, having only a most superficial grasp of a few “proof-texts” to justify their MO.

          1. I will look out your two references. Most Muslims everywhere are peaceful people, though naturally defensive of their religious allegiance when criticized, bullied or bombed. There is a range of attitudes towards militant jihad – just a bit like the position of the “Catholic” Republican community in Northern Ireland towards the un-Christian IRA, or the “religious” camps of Croatians, Serbs and Bosniaks in the former Yugoslavia towards their “terrorists”. Further comment on the content and impact of the Qur’an and Hadith with bibliographical attachment to a private email when time permits.

            1. Religious illiteracy/superficial grasp of Islam among the Islamist extremists has been a common motif in most of the studies I have had the chance to read:

              Jason Burke, “The New Threat”
              Stern and Berger, “ISIS : the State of terror”
              Weiss and Hassan, “Isis : inside the army of terror”
              Raffaello Pantucci, “‘We love death as you love life’ : Britain’s suburban terrorists”
              Patrick Cockburn, The rise of Islamic state : ISIS and the new Sunni revolution”
              Ed. Husain, “The Islamist : why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left”
              Maajid Nawaz, “Radical : my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening”
              Faizi McCants, “The ISIS apocalypse : the history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State”

              Among leaders of Islamist groups are some who do have a more thorough grasp of Islam (the head of Islamic State Abu Barkr al-Baghdadi’s PhD was on the Quran) but this is not the rule among many of their supporters and followers.

            2. What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters: They’re drawn to the movement for reasons that have little to do with belief in extremist Islam

              By Lydia Wilson

              . . . . Why did he do all these things? Many assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph with the traditional title Emir al-Muminiin, “Commander of the faithful,” a role currently held by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; that fighters all over the world are flocking to the area for a chance to fight for this dream. But this just doesn’t hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. But a detailed, or even superficial, knowledge of Islam isn’t necessarily relevant to the ideal of fighting for an Islamic State, as we have seen from the Amazon order of Islam for Dummies by one British fighter bound for ISIS.

              In fact, Erin Saltman, senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says that there is now less emphasis on knowledge of Islam in the recruitment phase.

              “We are seeing a movement away from strict religious ideological training as a requirement for recruitment,” she told me. “If we were looking at foreign fighter recruits to Afghanistan 10 or 20 years ago, there was intensive religious and theological training attached to recruitment. Nowadays, we see that recruitment strategy has branched out to a much broader audience with many different pull factors.”

              There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As Saltman said, “Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.” That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.

              More pertinent than Islamic theology is that there are other, much more convincing, explanations as to why they’ve fought for the side they did. . . . .

  8. The objectives of the “Muslim Reform Movement” cited here read like a maximum shopping list from culturally-western “politically correct” secularists (only the rights of disabled transgenders currently overlooked) and would not leave much “Islam” left at all, though this initiative makes a change from “left-wing” patronage of Muslims in the west because of shared hostility to aspects of “Atlantic/Judeo-Christian” society, &c. These objectives may be something of a non-starter, or even a provocation, in the global or at any rate Arab context.

    Some internal reform movements already growing inside the Ummah should be welcomed, though not funded (especially by Soros or the CIA). On the other hand, there should be no support, however indirect, for the financiers of Wahhabi ideologists in the west or traders with ISIL/Daesh – UK politicians like David Davis and Paddy Ashdown have at last “named and shamed” Saudi Arabia in that connection.

    1. Your first paragraph could be taken straight from a polemic by a jihadi terrorist. That’s how they think.

      According to their own manuals one of the aims of their terrorist attacks is to polarize the West so Westerners think the same way they do.

  9. “If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every battle… To outwit your enemy you must understand how he thinks” (Sun Tzu).
    “A perfect plan is the enemy of a successful plan” (Clausewitz).
    “A perfectly defined delineation between ‘mainstream’ and extremist views is not evident… Ibn Taymiyya’s and Sayid Qutb’s notions of social justice, the necessary Islamic character of leadership, and the importance of the Quran are highly palatable ideas to most Muslims, in contrast with other key notions in these theorists’ work.” – Youssef Aboul-Enein & Sherifa Zuhur, “Islamic Rulings on Warfare” (US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2004).
    Understanding how and why an opponent thinks and acts is obviously different from thinking and acting in an identical way.

    1. When Westerners bracket all Muslims together — Islamists with other Muslims — as all being part of the “same religion”, the “same ideas” and united in their belief in the Quran as their common scriptures and authority, they fall into line with what the Islamists themselves seek to achieve.

      They Islamist program is to eliminate “the grey zone”, the space of free exchange of ideas and co-existence, and to replace it with their own polarized view of the world — a clash of civilisations, the world versus the victimised Muslims.

      By embracing the extremists’ understanding and reading of the Quran, we are in fact giving legitimacy to the Islamists as the real authorities and true interpreters of their religion. This is exactly what the Islamists want us to think. Thus the vast majority of Muslims are relegated to the same place the Islamists relegate them — to those who are only lukewarm or moderate or not as truly committed or as understanding of their religion as are the Islamists.

      This attitude or perception actually robs the majority of Muslims of any outside support for reform efforts in their midst. It relegates the majority of Muslims to being part of the problem, the detritus giving some sort of cover to the extremists.

      Whatever you think of the Quran, that is quite irrelevant to any real progress towards a solution. What is needed is a human understanding of the people, and to accept the different groups of people for what they themselves believe and practice. They are the ones who get to define their own religious beliefs, not us.

      We ought to be robbing the Islamists of the satisfaction of falling in with their own way of interpreting their scriptures and acknowledging their being the true representatives of their religion.

  10. I do not endorse the terrorists’ undesirable interpretation of the Qur’an. It is not my analysis or recommendations that would play into their hands, but a comprehensive program like that of the “MDM”, a sort of ideological – albeit unarmed – secularization-jihad. I have already said: Live & let live. We should accept what different groups of people believe and practice, except for those few who use aggressive violence, though we need not avoid religious debate, including disagreement with missionaries, whether Mormon or Marxist – or even Muslim.

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