2012 Global Atheist ConventionSam Harris speaks at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. Photo by G Crouch / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Last month a contentious exchange broke out between Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and one of the torchbearers of the so-called New Atheist movement — Sam Harris. The quarrel began when Mr. Greenwald tweeted a link to an Al Jazeera article by Murtaza Hussain. The article argued that some of the New Atheists (Mr. Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens) endorse, under the guise of rational scientific discourse, forms (often venomous) of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Particularly problematic for Mr. Greenwald was Mr. Harris’ assertion — cited by Mr. Hussain — that “[the] people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

Mr. Harris then wrote to Mr. Greenwald, protesting Mr. Hussain’s “quote-mining,” criticizing the Al Jazeera article as “defamatory garbage,” and expressing frustration with Mr. Greenwald for promoting the piece.

However, reading Mr. Harris’ quote in context does little to call into question the conclusion reached by Mr. Hussain. Indeed, Mr. Harris confirmed Mr. Hussain’s conclusion when he explained to Mr. Greenwald that it was his (Mr. Harris) intention to “bemoan the loss of liberal moral clarity in the war on terror.”

It is a curious line of reasoning that allows Mr. Harris to espouse positive views about fascist speech and about the “moral clarity” of the Christian Right (a group included in the context provided by Mr. Harris) without assuming any of the liabilities of these positions. He endorses the “sensibleness” of their speech, neither as fascist speech nor as the speech of the Christian Right, but rather as the displaced speech of an authentic liberalism. Mr. Harris thus identifies his position with fascists and religious fundamentalists through his presumed ability to sanction their views without himself being identified with their practices.

This is the reason Mr. Harris takes such offense at the accusation that he is a racist or an Islamophobe. He is, as he states, “not making common cause with fascists,” but rather recovering the reasoned liberal position of defending “civil society” — a task, he claims, that in recent years has “been outsourced to extremists.”

Thus for Mr. Harris, the inability or unwillingness of secular, multicultural liberalism to press a vigorous critique of Islam is a symptom of its failure. With respect to Islam, liberals, according to Mr. Harris, ought to be ones “pointing the way beyond this iron-age madness,” but they have failed by virtue of their multicultural tolerance.

One of the critiques, advanced by Mr. Hussain against New Atheists like Mr. Harris, concerns the way in which their rational thinking is not as free from history as it presumes; on the contrary, it often exhibits the tendency to rehearse oppressive (at times racialized) features of colonial thought. Mr. Harris’ phrase “this iron age madness” functions as a clear example of the way in which he codes ‘non-Western’ as traditional, backward, and repressive, allowing the West to represent itself as modern, forward thinking, and free.

This form of reasoning confuses its descriptions with its presuppositions, using the former to covertly ground the latter.

In a notable example of such confused reasoning, Mr. Harris asserted, in a Huffington Post piece quoted by Mr. Hussain, that “the outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns.”

Here we see Mr. Harris’ assumptions: 1) theological concerns cannot provide a basis for reasonable claims; 2) theological concerns are symptoms of a mistaken (traditional, backward, culturally determined) understandings of oneself and the world; and 3) non-theological (atheistic) concerns as the only kinds of concerns capable of grounding an accurate view of oneself and the world.

Mr. Harris’ assumptions mask the vast differences internal to modes of religious thought (an oxymoron for Mr. Harris) and religious life. It also obscures the fact that there might, in fact, be non-theological reasons for Muslims to feel outraged over U.S. and British foreign policy.

Mr. Harris’ new form of atheism sounds very much like an old form of colonialism.

This is seen most clearly at those moments when Mr. Harris shows us the ethical character of his thinking. He writes, in the email response to Mr. Greenwald, “one of my main concerns is for all the suffering women, homosexuals, freethinkers, and intellectuals in indigenous Muslim societies.”

Appealing to the discourse of Western moral superiority, Mr. Harris invokes their plight as a way to justify belligerent attitudes against Islam. His reasoning predicates the West as the source of salvation and precludes the possibility of thinking meaningful social transformation outside the framework of an atheistic liberalism.


Daniel J. SchultzDaniel J. Schultz is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently writing a dissertation on Foucault’s concept of pastoral power in relation to the visual transmission of theological discourse in Franciscan iconography.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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"Mr. Harris’ new form of atheism sounds very much like an old form of colonialism" - Does that make it wrong? You can't dismiss a pointed criticism of the very real problems with fundamentalist cultures by crying imperialism. If meaningful cultural transformation is to take place in oppressive Islamic states you first must admit that there is oppression and that something should be done about it.

If the problems in the Islamic world (sectarian strife, terrorism, brutal oppression, lack of civil liberties, lack of civil social and political institutions, pervasive poverty in many cases, lack of meaningful economic opportunity) are not rooted in religion what are that driven by?

Early Muslim religions were formed by women scholars...Christianity too...then the wargods took over...men in social control seems to be the reoccurring base problem, which yes encourages women willing to be inept for $ to shine through, but the rest of us are still here on the back burner waiting, fighting nonviolently, at jobs changing things, wanting insurance instead of marrying into it, wanting retirement instead of marrying into it. BBC has a series , when god was a girl.....peace

I can't speak for the entire "Islamic world", but in the case of Pakistan, I think the primary cause is the lack (and quality) of education. We have a very low literacy rate, which means that only a small percentage of the population makes it through formal education. In my personal opinion, for those of us who do manage to finish undergraduate studies, education is mostly about finishing the degree so that we can get a job; and not about "learning".

After spending several years in Europe, I see thing differently. I honestly believe that solving the education problem is the key (of course, social systems are complex, and lots of other aspects come into play as well).

Just my two cents!

To cite "Iron-age madness" as some kind of Crypto- colonial speak by Mr. Harris is absurd! Chris Hitchens regularly referred to the origins of Judaism and then Christianity as curiously sprouting from an "Iron-age" mentality in the middle east. Then a rather lowly and backward desert setting on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.

Judaism and Christianity are both clearly the products of the original "Iron-age madness" and are now also the religious framework on which "western civilization" has been formed.

One need not have to refer back to any bygone colonial period in order to hold Islam to account for it's own current and absolutly horrific belief system on Woman's rights, blasphemy, freedom of the press - just to name a few.

Just to be absolutely clear, Islam is every bit as mindless, cruel and irrational as it's Abraham-ic for-bearers, Judaism and Christianity!

The Aljazeera article does a slightly better job of exposing problems with Harris’ conclusions. Both it and this article do a horrible job of considering what he has to say about the failure of cultural relativism. How does bemoaning “the loss of liberal moral clarity” confirm that Harris is anti-Muslim? I would suggest clicking through to the direct words of Sam Harris for clarification.

And why not actually defend theology instead of dancing around that issue? If the values from the Iron Age are not (relative to ours) “madness”, then what are they? You don’t defend them, you only attack Harris’ words. Clearly Harris is addressing tribalism and honor killing, not the Golden Rule. In your claim of his 3 assumptions, can you refute 1 and 2? Harris would say the 3rd is inaccurate. I have heard him defend theological claims when they do give us accurate world views.

Harris is clearly on the side of less suffering. How you get from there to “belligerent”, I don’t know.

"That's Hell"

I have numerous objections to Mr. Schultz's article; it heartens me that a number of them have been addressed in the six comments that preceed mine.

So instead of rehashing what my fellow commenters have already said, let me say that Schultz's piece may be symptomatic of the attitude of this website -- which has amongst it's categories for posted essays "Islamophobia."

It never occurs to people who use this term that no one has ever bothered to invent such a word as 'Buddhophobia' to descibe a supposed irrational fear of Buddhism. Of course, there is no prevalent fear of Buddhism in the world -- whether rational or irrational -- because Buddhism has a much more peaceful history than Islam and Buddhist thinking is not a longstanding source of inspiration for scores of terrorists.

I would suggest that On Being and it's contributors need to rethink the concept of Islamophobia so that they don't see irrational fear (or heaven forbid, racist, colonial thinking) in every criticism of the world's most violent religion. As for Mr. Shultz himself, perhaps he should stick to Foucault and the Franciscan's.

Let me further more previous comment by quoting from Sam Harris' e-mail exchange with Gleen Greenwald:

"

"There is no such thing as "Islamophobia." This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."

I urge all the readers of this site not to be taken as Greenwald has been. Indeed, looking at the exchange at
http://ggsidedocs.blogspot.com.br/2013/04/email-with-sam-harris.html#!/2013/04/email-with-sam-harris.html

and Greenwald's further discussion at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus

is well worthwhile. Greenwald's moral relativism is clearly on display vis-a-vis Islamicist violence.

Let me add to my previous comment by quoting from Sam Harris' e-mail exchange with Gleen Greenwald:

"There is no such thing as "Islamophobia." This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."

As a general rule, Harris is correct. Most fear of Islam isn't of an irrational character, and the term 'Islamophobia' was coined by cultural relativists for exactly the purpose Harris states. I urge the readers and contributers of On Being not to be taken in by it.

Greenwald's further discussion of the matter is at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus

and is most enlightening. Greenwald's moral relativism vis-a-vis Islamicist violence is clearly on display.

For Harris' view on how this type of criticism is utlimately unethical visit
http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/

I meant to to give the address to the exchange between Harris and Greenwald in my second comment. It is
http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/dear-fellow-liberal2

I gave a link to Harris' rebuttal; as Harris makes two points I find particularly germain to this column here, however, I would like to quote them. First, Harris says of Greenwald's charge of Islamophobia:

"At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame."

The truth of Harris' statement's about free speech and the responsible parties should be self-evident. As Daniel J. Schultz's essay is of a piece with Greenwald's as a bit of apology for Islam, Harris' comments apply equally to it.

Second, Harris mentions an attempt to drive this very point home to Greenwald:

"I recently suggested to Greenwald on Twitter that we settle our dispute by holding simultaneous cartoon contests. He could use his Guardian blog to solicit cartoons about Islam, and I’d use my website to run a similar contest for any other faith on earth. As will come as no surprise, the man immediately started sputtering non-sequiturs."

It would be interesting to see Schultz's response to a similar suggestion, would it not?

Daniel, wonderful essay.

Something to watch out for with Mr. Harris is his selective use of "evidence". An example of this is him insisting that much of Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than political / nationalistic motives which the evidence (see Pappe and others) would led us to believe.

For imperial apologists like Mr. Harris it conveniently obscures the more painful questions about the role Western politics have played in creating the current conundrum.

It conveniently divides the world in a simplistic colonial world view of Western civilization pitched against "those" barbarians with the moral high ground automatically assumed to be ours.