An open letter to Sam Harris

Perhaps I’m not the best person to offer advice on how to deal with trolls. My site gets relatively light traffic, and the people who visit tend to be way too polite, nice, or otherwise supportive. My lack of popularity in a sense has shielded me from the kind of criticism you’re reglarly subjected to. Still, I feel I understand why your positions have been so villified, and why you often find yourself outside of what the ‘atheist mainstream’ believes.

First, while I think you’re a great writer and I endlessly enjoy your prose, you don’t exactly speak the way regular people do online. Your style is more reminisent of newspaper editorials than blogs, and in a sense, it lacks a feeling of genuineness. It almost makes one feel as though you’ve been too careful with your words. A little candidness goes a long way online, especially when you’re trying to express frustration.

Second, your controversial position on things is so nuanced, it’s difficult to actually represent it well, especially when one considers the short attention span of the Internet (I bet only a fraction of my readers will even bother to read this entire article). Even when you provide resources to properly analyze your belief, (like the link you said justifying torture that I’m still wrestling with) you’re asking what is essentially the laziest generation in the history of the planet to studiously research your position. That ain’t gonna happen.

Third, you must chose your battles. While you are undoubtedly more recognized than PZ Myers, the man has established a large online following; one that I wouldn’t dare anger. This is not a place I normally expect civil debate (and I don’t actually think it’s the intent of the site anyways). Holding PZ responsible for the things his fans say suggests the solution would be either censorship or policing, neither of which I think is a good idea.

Fourth, your experiences with a psychedelic drugs will always make you an outsider. America is so afraid of drugs, it would rather jail a huge segment of its population than allow adults to make their own decisions about their bodies. You and I both know a prohibitionist attitude is religious in nature, but it has been ingrained long enough in American culture that the default stance on recreational drugs is “drugs are bad, m’kay?”, regardless of religious affiliation.

Last but not least, your criticism of Islam will always be mistaken for racism. I know, because I get the same look from people when I say something. This vile religion has managed to convince everyone that belonging to their group somehow makes one part of a ‘race’, and criticism of this mysogynistic, violent culture amounts to being a modern day bigot. That’s not a label anyone enjoys, and people are willing to ignore reality if it means they won’t look bad, even at their own detriment.

I know the Interwebs can be a harsh place, and it lobs criticism far more than praise. Just remember that so much of the Internet is the raw, unfiltered thoughts of people who have no responsibility for the words they say. Take it with a grain of salt, man.

Comments (10)

  • avatar

    Jemaleddin

    1) His stance on torture is just wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s no getting around that.

    2) The reason that his stance on Islam gets mistaken for racism is that there’s no way to do the kind of profiling he supports that isn’t racial profiling. Ergo…

  • avatar

    Misha

    “This vile religion has managed to convince everyone that belonging to their group somehow makes one part of a ‘race’, and criticism of this mysogynistic, violent culture amounts to being a modern day bigot.”

    In this sentence you are equating a religion to a culture. However, Islam is the majority belief of people of many different cultures (from SE Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, and Africa). So equating Islam broadly as a “misogynistic, violent culture” easily comes off as ignorant bigotry because it shows lack of acknowledgement for the wide range in which Islam and its adherents of various cultures actually interacts. Unless you can show that Islam has a strong correlation with misogyny and violence in EVERY culture where it predominates, then this statement is not supportable. It smacks of Western media bias, xenophobia, and ignorance.

  • avatar

    Samantha

    Enjoyed this post. Thanks :)

  • avatar

    Pvt.Happy

    Sam Harris is absolutely a racist when it comes to Islam, a bullshit religion – like all the others. As a listener of TGA, I am actually a bit surprised to read your equally narrow minded take on Islam. You had in earlier shows refreshingly criticized Pat Condell for his own racism. However, what you wrote above is equally disgusting. Consider my kickstarter dollars gone…

    All religions are crap. If you want to focus on scripture, Judaism and Hinduism probably take the cake for questionable morality including “misogyny” and “violence.” In my view, though, the main thing to point out is that they are all equally absurd, oppressive, stupid and untrue.

    I agree with Misha above: Islam is not a culture. Your monolithic view only betrays your ignorance. Sam Harris, Pat Condell and, evidently, you, are ultimately worshipping at the altar of American power and exceptionalism, and I find this deeply disappointing.

    You are falling into the trap of criticising a “safe” target… the official enemy of the West. Yawn.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    You’re falling in the trap of confusing a religion with a race. I claim that as a whole, the culture of Islam (say, like the cultural influence of any major religion) is repressive, misogynistic and backwards (same culture that encourages female circumcision, Sharia Law, and child brides). They aren’t equally oppressive to the other major religions, and to create a false equivalency seems to be in order not to appear racist. I do believe that there are morally inferior cultures, especially when they are still trapped in the 14th century. Pretending they are “just as bad as everyone else’ ignores the facts.

    Sorry you didn’t want to support the book, but I would rather there be no fly-by-nighters there anyways.

  • avatar

    Misha

    Ah, possibly as long and hard to read. But hope it’s comprehensible.

    How is anything I (or we) said “equating religion with a race”? The only example I can think of where the definitions between religion, race, and culture is Judaism & Jewish culture/heritage. But even there, it’s easy to see that Judaism can never be equated with a race because there are many individuals of different ethnicities who practice Judaism, therefore disqualifying the ‘race’ categorization. Anyways, that’s besides the point…

    Like I said (maybe on the FB thread), I think one can argue that there are specific cultural aspects in religions, but when using the broadest religious term (in this case, Islam), it’s hard to justify arguing that there are defining characteristics of its culture as a whole.

    Now, to make sure that I can clarify your statement by re-stating it, you would say that: Islamic culture encourages female circumcision, Sharia Law, and child brides.

    I would like to argue against two of these, one from my personal experience in living in a predominantly Muslim society:

    1) Female circumcision: A cursory search for the history of female circumcision shows that this tradition dates back before monotheism itself (hell, I didn’t even know that). Not only that, but it’s easy to see that -nowhere- in the Quran does it promote female circumcision as a tradition of Islam. There is a passage that allows female circumcision within health guidelines, but this is not promote the practice.

    Now, I said earlier that we can look at the mixture of current religious influence, ancient (or just older, non-(current) religious influenced) culture of the peoples, and other influencing cultures. Because female circumcision pre-dates Islam, this act would be considered a cultural influence. This is not to say that Islam can’t encourage it. But if you actually look at the history, leaders and individual believers in Islam are split on whether or not Islam condones it and to what extent. Some Islamic countries and leaders outright ban it as against Islam. So to say that Islamic culture encourages female genital mutilation (to summarize your point) is blatantly generalizing only one facet, interpretation, and practice carried out by -some- Muslims.

    In countries with no cultural tradition of female circumcision (e.g., Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia), one would expect to see an increase in female genital mutilation (FGM) after coming under Islamic rule and influence if this really is encouraged by this idea of Islamic culture. But we don’t see that. It’s not to say that out of some other reason that I am blind to that you couldn’t be right, but the evidence to support Islam as a culture that encourages FGM is weak and debatable.

    Oh yea, and when you say that Islamic culture encourages FGM, you are condoning those people who use Islam and religious reasons to support an outdated, horrific tradition.

    2) Child Brides

    I’m not going to repeat the depth for FGM here, but same idea: child marriage is something that has been present in almost all cultures, with or without religious influences for its enforcement or encouragement. It’s shown to be correlated with poverty and economic status. Now, this is where there are stronger arguments for Islam condoning child marriage, and let’s be honest: in some cultures, Islam is used as a strong reason to justify the practice.

    BUT, the exception proves the rule. Many Muslims don’t encourage it, and many actually discourage child marriage. So what happens when we have large groups of Muslims who not only don’t practice child marriage, but even go as far as to condemn it? How many people will it take to break this idea that a specific religion (again, Islam here) is supporting A, B, and C? By what means do you come to conclude that the second largest religion on Earth is a cultural that can be generalized as encouraging these things?

    This is not to create a false equivalency. Each religion and each culture has its strong points, it negative points, and its very bland and boring points. By stating that you are overgeneralizing an entire religion to a specific culture of A, B, and C does not mean that we ignore negative aspects of this religion, or of cultures that utilize it for harmful means.

    It is to say that we want to be intellectual, reasonable, and respectable of our analysis when we discuss these issues. Otherwise we risk being dismissed as ignorant, uneducated bigots when it comes time to discuss points of great concern and impact. As we are individuals participating in a diverse community of atheism, and as many atheists seem to uphold the idea of reason and evidence, I would expect better of us, even when it comes to criticizing religions. But then again, I wouldn’t be as careless as to generalize any of these aspects as being characteristic of “atheist culture.”

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    I respect the fact that you want rational analysis, and you’re right: your comment is monstrous in length. My reply would be as well (especially in regards to judging what the Koran says as an adequate descriptor of what Muslims actually believe and practice).

    Here’s the basic rundown: we cannot all possibly express the subtleties of our views, nor do I think it’s necessary when talking about beliefs that have no earthly business still kicking around. Islam means submission, and that’s what the culture teaches, ultimately. Submission to people of authority, submission to ancient and barbaric traditions. It’s true, female circumcision is not a phenomenon that originated in Islam. It’s been allowed to grow, however, because it coincides with the belief that women need to have their sexual lives controlled from their birth.

    I also don’t think it’s necessary to be an expert in nonsense in order to reject it outright.

    Here’s ultimately what separates Islam from other mainstream religions: it has never been through a serious reformation and has not adapted to the modern world. We benefit from the Enlightenment, and in places where that influence isn’t felt, then Christianity ends up being just as vile and oppressive (i.e., Africa).

    Have you really considered the subtleties of Harris’ arguments? I feel as though you want us to distrust all religions equally, and I’m of the opinion that this is a terrible fucking idea.

  • avatar

    Misha

    Hey Jacob,

    I’m going to address both the Facebook and blog comments on here alone and I’ll try to keep it brief(er), as we’re both probably busy with other things and new discussions. [Note: just finished, and it's not short. I won't be offended if you choose not to respond it full due to time or other reasons].

    First, thanks for continuing to reply. You’re right that we can’t express all the subtleties, but I don’t think the generalizations that were made are any better for it.

    Yes, Islam means submission and is historically (and still) political in nature. However, submission can mean (and from my reading of it) simply the submission to Allah. Anything besides that, especially authority or traditions that could be against Islam or are not concretely encouraged (e.g., FGM or child marriage), are not required. Again, we are seeing the intersection of one culture’s utilization of the religion to forward the tradition. Just like we see more westernized interpretations utilize Islam to promote social justice, equality and respect for women, and other acts that a social liberal could construe as beneficial. So to continue to broadly proclaim Islam in its entirety as a culture of misogyny and violence isn’t just leaving out the detailed subtleties, it’s leaving out any observation of obvious differences among different Islamic groups.

    The article “Egypt to revive female genital mutilation in the name of Islam?” is a GREAT example of how Islam is diverse on the issue of FGM. If you notice, the Salafis (equivalent to extreme conservative Christian Right) are the ones promoting FGM under their interpretation of Islam. HOWEVER, the article lists other Egyptian organizations who express adamant opposition to the practice at all! Unless I’m completely wrong, wouldn’t one expect that these other organizations are also made up of practicing Muslims?

    From your comment on Facebook: “Islam has taken up the mantle of maintaining traditions and beliefs which are inhumane and wrong.”

    Why do you allow the Salafis, an extreme group who do not make up the majority of Muslims, to represent ALL of Islam? Is Islam only what the Salafis say it is? The other end of the spectrum is to see Islam only as the more liberal interpretive groups see it. This too is wrong–again, we are not just ignoring subtleties, but large and apparent differences within Islamic traditions.

    “Religions don’t invent things, they merely steal them, re-brand them, and make shit their own. In the case of Islam, it’s the adoption of regressive cultural remnants that should be eroding, but are still being propped up by this religion. So no, I don’t think you can easily unglue them, the same way it’s fucking impossible to remove “in god we trust” from your currency.”

    Eh, I agree with your first sentence here. But otherwise, again, you are attributing something to Islam in its entirety without any regard to all the very obvious differences among traditions practiced in Islam.

    I disagree it being “impossible” to remove “In God We Trust” from US currency. I would have to see a stronger argument or reason, but I don’t expect it here.

    “Here’s ultimately what separates Islam from other mainstream religions: it has never been through a serious reformation and has not adapted to the modern world. We benefit from the Enlightenment, and in places where that influence isn’t felt, then Christianity ends up being just as vile and oppressive (i.e., Africa).”

    Christianity in some forms in America are just as “vile and oppressive”, and in fact are a reaction to the Enlightenment and modernization. So even if/when Islam goes through such a period, we will just see the same splits that we see today: liberal interpretation, conservative interpretation, and mystic interpretation, amongst others.

    About Harris: I am neutral and none of my comments here have been in regards to Harris. If you have any particular works of him that should read, I’m very open to it. He’s on my large list of to-reads, but otherwise I am very honest that I haven’t read anything besides “Letter to a Christian Nation” back in college.

    Lastly, I don’t mean to say “distrust all religions equally.” There are definite aspects of every religion and philosophy that need to be addressed, each with its different areas of concern. BUT, again to reiterate, you are using ‘Islam’ in a very general term with attributes that seem to stem only from one group’s interpretation of Islam. Ignoring the breadth of Islamic traditions, interpretations, and cultural mixing is a great bias that worries me beyond Islam itself. It’s the generalization any religious group to characteristics only attributed to certain sects, without full acknowledgement of the diversity. You can make an argument that one group might better represent the whole, but still this would really have to have a lot of backing to ignore the breadth of each.

    On a practical note, my biggest frustration with the atheism movement is seeing what seems to be a very large number (if not the majority) of open, active atheists using these generalizations AND making conclusions on how to overcome what we perceive are the problems stemming from these generalizations. If we don’t start with a good, honest, non-biased (or less biased) understanding of religions, how can we make better inferences on how to effectively address these issues? Your generalizations of Islam seem to immediately exclude the possibility of Muslim allies who actually stand in agreement with you (and me) on issues of FGM and female rights and equality. But maybe you assume that they can’t possibly be pro-equality if they are Muslim, seeing as you believe that the culture of all of Islam is misogynistic and violent?

  • avatar

    Jarrod

    “it lacks a feeling of genuineness”

    I couldn’t possibly agree with you less. Sam Harris’ writing is the most earnest, intellectually honest, rigorous and – indeed – genuine on the topic of atheism and religion that we have.

    If eloquent, thoughtful and beautiful prose is taken to lack authenticity these days, then I for one say the burden is on the illiterates to remedy their shortcoming, and not on the great authors like Sam Harris to dumb down their style (which is what you seem to imply is called for, Jacob?)

    “too careful with your words”

    Have we read the same author? Harris is renowned for his unapologetic and cutting style, lacing point after point with wry humour. It really sounds here like you’re trying to school one of the preeminent authors of our time in how to write. I must state again, if Sam Harris’ writing is too “nuanced” for some in the atheist community, then that is a failing of those individuals, not of Sam Harris. We want to raise the bar, not lower it. God knows there is enough bloggers writing “the way regular people do” already, what we need is more Sam Harrises, not more semi-literate bloggers.

    “you must chose your battles”, “the man has established a large online following; one that I wouldn’t dare anger”…

    Again, you seem to suggest Sam Harris should capitulate to populism? Or that he at least self-censor so as to stay out of harm’s way and not offend PZ Myers’ mob. Never mind that the entire project of modern atheism is that of railing against a large, often adversarial mob (of believers), you seem to imply that if this mob happens to be atheist, then be silent and avoid them. I’m repulsed by this suggestion. I do however agree with you to some extent regarding PZ Myers’ responsibility for his blog commenters, but can’t agree that equates to a Harris calling for “either censorship or policing”. Harris’ point is, as you ought to expect, more nuanced; firstly PZ Myers is to some degree tacitly endorsing the comments by not responding to them or countering them. Even if you object to this with a blunt argument about blindly enabling free speech, I feel that a certain amount of responsibility (perhaps not much, but a little at least) does rest, on the shoulders of a leader/patron/instigator, for the behaviour of the community. By this I mean that if I ran a successful blog, and my readers were posting appalling and misleading comments about an individual, I would feel obliged to respond to them in good conscience, and endorse civil, honest discourse – even if I disagreed with the individual. So Harris’ point here isn’t about free speech at all, but about intellectual honesty and obligations for a degree of basic decency and propriety on the part of PZ Myers. An obligation that Myers, showing definite symptoms of demagoguery, refuses to rise to.

    On the whole I find your open letter to be either contradictory, obvious or just plain unnecessary. If Harris has committed any error, it’s that he actually cares about the trolls. I think you and I both recognised that his post was a call for reassurance from his friends in the community, those that value his beautiful writing and formidable thinking. And his courage – he takes on topics that populists like PZ Myers wouldn’t dare lest they lose their precious following – and in the most earnest and reasoned way possible. He is consistently at the frontiers of the atheist movement, expanding the basic idea into more encompassing topics of moral philosophy, cognition and free will. And all too often fighting those intellectual battles alone. Yet you address him here in almost a child-like tone, “Well Sam, come sit on uncle Jacob’s knee and lemme tell you ’bout the the folk on the Internet”. I wish you would have offered more support and less chiding to an incredible and formidable author who was, perhaps, just calling for a bit of reassurnace.

    P.S. I will still buy your book. :)

  • avatar

    Jarrod

    @Jemaleddin

    “His stance on torture is just wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s no getting around that.”

    And what is your understanding of his stance? Harris has stated that it is “more or less identical” to what is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/#CasStuBea

    As such, I don’t see how he could be so utterly “wrong, wrong, wrong” while being in agreeance with such a mainstream philosophical source as the SEP.

    I can only suspect that you haven’t taken the time to read his actual views on the topic (or the SEP link above), but simply accepted how they’ve been reported by others? If so, this is exactly the kind of sheepish intellectual negligence Harris is taking issue with.

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