Sam Harris makes it clear that his atheism is in fact motivated less by reason and more by spleen:
Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself.
He compares it to building a shrine to Satan or a 9/11 truther institute. And: “At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths.” Namely:
And honest reasoning declares that there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the religion of Islam and about the state of discourse among Muslims living in the West, and it is decidedly inconvenient that discussing these facts publicly is considered a sign of “intolerance” by well-intentioned liberals, in part because such criticism resonates with the actual bigotry of not-so-well-intentioned conservatives.
To prove this, who quotes the Koran and notes that he doesn’t hear “from Western Muslims … any frank acknowledgment of these unpleasant truths.”
But of course, the Old Testament is equally terrifying, and Christians and Jews aren’t in a habit of putting out press releases frankly acknowledging all its unpleasant truths. And one’s being unaware of something doesn’t mean that it’s not happening: an empirical investigation would be required to see what kinds of conversations are going on in communities all over the world. It’s not something Harris, in this case, seems to care about — but of course it’s not something he could do thoroughly enough in principle to allay his suspicions. That’s why intelligent people refrain from generalizing in such situations.
We’re meant to conclude — by both Harris and some on the right, including Newt Gingrich, who recently compared Muslims to Nazis — that when a few members of some group x perform y in the name of that group or its values, the entire group ought to be held responsible. This is, of course, nonsense. But the best case one could make for it is to say that there’s something about the values (or race) of the group which naturally leads members to perform certain reprehensible acts. And we can evaluate whether this is so in the case of Islam in part by looking at the frequency of such acts in the group as a whole. Here’s what the empirical evidence says: a) a very tiny percentage of Muslims engage in acts of terrorism; b) most victims of terrorism are Muslim; c) among the more than one billion Muslims in the world, there is a wide variance in social norms (ranging from conservative to liberal), and as in any religion there are segments that run the whole range from radical to moderate to (believe it or not) liberal; d) American Muslims tend to be moderate; e) the builders of the “ground zero mosque” (that’s not really what it is, but oh well) are liberal advocates of religious tolerance and interfaith outreach; f) the amount of violence caused (arguably) by American nationalism has been far greater in the last decade than that caused by any religion–but of course, I wouldn’t want to be branded as having violent tendencies because I share certain distinctively American values or customs.
And here’s what the more general psychological evidence says: people are on the whole just as decent over there as they are over here, whatever their religion (nationality, race, etc.). In whatever their varied manifestations, human beings — and their religions — are driven by much more fundamental and powerful forces that tend to be common to them all. And one of those forces — the tendency to communality, the capacity to read others intentions and feel their feelings — is the single source (thinking of both Rousseau and Spinoza here) of both incredible decency and incredible villainy.
Harris goes on to say that it’s not the case that 9/11 has “nothing to do with Islam” because it pleased “millions of Muslims.” Similarly, we can link 9/11 to any general class of human beings if some sub-set of its members was pleased by it. Unless there’s some percentage that qualifies the group as a whole. And given the figure Harris uses (where he gets it he doesn’t say, and it’s doubtful it rests on empirical evidence of any kind) and the fact that there are more than 1 billion Muslims, he could have substituted the phrase “a small percentage of Muslims” for “millions of Muslims.” But then even if 90 percent of Muslims were pleased by 9/11, it wouldn’t be evidences that 9/11 has something to do with Islam in some strong sense, because — and this is a factor that actual scientists face every day — there could be some other factor correlated to being both a Muslim and being pleased by 9/11. Such as simple anti-Americanism based on some sense of grievance, whether justified or not. But finally, let’s grant the absurd proposition that Islam is a religion that predisposes 90 percent of its adherents to despise infidels and be pleased by their murder. We would still be left with the problem that — demonstrably — Islam clearly does not lead to the vast majority of Muslims acting on those wishes. So if 99.99 percent of Muslims do not engage in the slaughter of infidels, what are we to make of the proposition that Islam is naturally a religion of war? Clearly its nonsense. At best it would be a religion of warlike feelings profoundly counteracted by some other factor among most of its adherents. And so what are we to make of the proposition that Islam led to 9/11? It is also nonsense. What led to 9/11 are the behaviors of those involved in it, and they can lay claim to any sort motives that they like: Islam, Christianity, nationalism, communism, whatever. Usually such ideologies are merely rationalizations of much more personal motives.
“Why Evolution is True” evangelist Jerry Coyne writes a concurring, abjectly stupid post. He makes the same “if I haven’t seen it it doesn’t exist point” that I responded to above: “I saw lots of worldwide celebration after September 11, but few condemnations of the perpetrators, and none from Islamic countries.” First, that is simply false, as many of us who also watched the news after September 11 can attest (the reaction of Iranians is one of many cases in point — Google it). Second, what Jerry Coyne happens to see in the Western media is not evidence as to the general opinion of more than a billion people.
An advocate of “reason” as opposed to religion might pause before making broad generalizations about one sixth of the world. Or before making such generalizations based on selected passages from an ancient text that only fundamentalists take literally. But in this case, “reason” is just something fetishized as a means to another form of in-group/out-group, reactive fundamentalism.
This goes toward the larger point I’ve tried to make a few times: science, evolution, and atheism — and what one might think of as secularism generally — do not need irrational hysterics like Harris and Coyne and Dawkins as their advocates. They are not served by them. They do not need fundamentalists matching up man-for-man to the fundamentalists on the other side. Bellicose advocacy concerning science” and “reason” is not itself scientific or reasonable.
Via Conor Friedersdorf, an NRO conservative reminds his friends that Islam is not monolithic:
I wouldn’t say I’m a very religiously observant person, but the observant Muslims I know best are my parents. Both of my parents have lived in New York city for over thirty years. Both of them worked in the World Trade Center in the 1980s, when I was a kid. Some of my fondest memories of growing up involve visiting them at work, and watching the 4th of July fireworks display from my dad’s office window. They were born in a country (Bangladesh) where Islamist terrorists have killed a large number of people in bomb attacks and acid attacks, and they lived through a savage and mostly forgotten war in which over 1 million Bengali Muslims were tortured and killed in part because they were accused of being “polytheists,” etc. That is, armed cadres of proto-Islamists were killing Muslims who had a different way of seeing the world and practicing their religion.
So that’s part of where I’m coming from: the idea that Islam is one thing or that all Muslims are the same strikes me as highly unlikely.
And pictures of what’s allowed within the same distance from “hallowed ground” as the proposed community center: http://daryllang.com/blog/4421
By: Wes Alwan