Freddie deBoer has gone on a long, digressive diatribe about the evils of US foreign policy toward Muslim nations, with the presumed intention of arguing that these evils have been under-acknowledged by the tandem of Bill Maher and Sam Harris, in service of glorifying themselves. A few points.
The resistance to acknowledging differences between Bill Maher and Sam Harris is odd. Harris was asked on Maher’s television show to discuss Islam, because as a longtime critic of monotheistic religion (yes, all three monotheistic religions, not just Islam) Harris was evidently judged as someone who’d be apt to comment on recent world events.
But Harris and Maher are not the same person. Lazily conflating the two is just that: deliberately lazy. Harris and Maher have no formal alliance, nor have they co-authored any intellectual works, nor can they be reasonably said to be bound to one another aside from the fact that Harris has occasionally appeared on Maher’s television show, and Maher has occasionally offered praise for Harris.
There’s this weird fixation among liberal-left commentators nowadays to take easy swipes at what they call “New Atheists.” To me, it seems like a whole lot of posturing. “Oh yes, these white dudes arguing for atheism are so full of themselves, and have developed a cult, and don’t acknowledge the evils of US foreign policy, and therefore ought to be shunned and blithely called ‘bigots.’”
These very savvy left-liberal commentators must not have watched Sam Harris’ address to one such “New Atheist” gathering in which he specifically disavowed the term “Atheist” as a word he rejects as an identifier in any holistic sense. “Our use of this term atheism is a mistake,” Harris said. This quite angered many “New Atheists” at the time. (And yes, there is a bit of a cult associated with some of the putatively “New Atheist” authors, although that’s declined since its height from 2007-9.)
But these liberal-left critics don’t really care to analyze Harris’ arguments. They’re content to just denounce him as a “bigot” because that somehow shows how very tolerant and loving of Muslims they are, or something like that.
For one, I don’t understand how pretending that Muslims’ beliefs are credible — i.e., Muhammad ascended to Various Heavens on a winged horse, after flying from Mecca to Jerusalem on said winged horse — does anybody any good. This mindset infantilizes Muslims, and seems to imply that criticism of their deeply-held beliefs ought to be off-bounds. As if they can’t handle criticism. That’s not enlightened and savvy, it’s condescending.
There’s also another easy conflation going on here between “New Atheism” — a term used by critics of the alleged “movement” far more often than actual adherents — and support for an aggressive US foreign policy. That’s simply false. Putting forth a strident atheism has nothing whatever to do, intrinsically, with backing an aggressive US foreign policy. Any assertions to the contrary are lies.
Further, espousing “New Atheism” — again, a nebulous term defined almost entirely by self-righteous critics — has nothing whatever to do with denying American Muslims their political rights. I have for years been a fervent defender of Muslims’ civil liberties. I’ve publicly expressed my condemnation of the NYPD surveillance of mosques, of the infringements on Muslims’ rights nationwide to construct mosques, and of the various other abuses perpetrated on Muslims who have done nothing wrong.
But none of this compels me to defend their flatly, plainly, obviously false beliefs. A basic principle of Islam is that Muhammad was dictated the Eternal Word directly by God. Muhammad wrote the Koran as a direct transmission from God. Therefore, everything in the Koran is supposed to be the unalterable word of God. Lots of left-liberals don’t actually care to learn about Islam, or to read the Koran. But I have. I’m not saying I’m an expert. But I did happen to write one of my two primary college papers on political Islam in Egypt, and have studied the subject. Many of these left-liberal critics seem to have no desire to actually learn about the subject that they so piously opine on, because in their mind all religions are equal and their doctrinal differences don’t matter.
Well, sorry, but there are actual doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity that could compel adherents of the two religions to engage in various different acts. In other words, an adherent of Islam could find himself authorized to commit an act that an adherent of Christianity could not find himself authorized to commit.
Does this mean I’m arguing that Christians don’t commit violent acts? Of course not! Christianity is the primary target of my public criticism with respect to religious belief. That’s because I live in a country where Christianity is the predominant religion. If I lived in Saudi Arabia, I suspect Islam would be my primary target.
But I don’t see why this compels me to pretend like there’s nothing metaphysically wrong with Islam, or that critiquing Islam’s claims about the nature of the universe is somehow “bigoted,” or that atheism is dumb, or that some Muslims across the world engage in uniquely-violent acts.
There are people who bizarrely contend that ISIS, for example, has nothing to do with Islam. For one, who are Western secularists, or even Western Muslims, to pronounce on how disaffected young men in Syria may identify themselves? If they are committing heinous acts explicitly in the name of Islam, in what sense are these people “not Muslims”? You might disagree with how they are effectuating their Islam, or whatever, but to deny that they are Muslims is a truly weird denial of individual agency.
Look: I don’t agree with everything Sam Harris has ever said. It would be ridiculous to agree 100% with everything anybody has ever said. But this casual dismissal of him as a “bigot” reflects more on the casual critics than Harris himself. Unlike Maher, who is just some needlessly provocative comedian with an overblown ego, Harris is a legitimate intellectual. He has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. He has studied the three monotheisms deeply. He has engaged in public debates with some of the leading American Christian apologists, such as William Lane Craig. Maher would never do such things because Maher is an idiot.
Sam Harris is not an idiot. Again, by all means disagree with various points he has made over the course of his 10+ years in the public square, but why would you so casually dismiss him as a “bigot”? Unless you’re just signaling how much you disdain “White Atheist Dudes”? Stop lying about him.
Sam Harris just authored a book, “Waking Up,” which is now number 4 on the New York Times best-seller list. It has nothing to do with Islam. It is an attempt at distilling the lessons of Vipassana meditation for a secular audience. This has real-world value, in that it assists people with better controlling their brains. (I highly recommend engaging in meditative/contemplative practice.) Sam Harris is not just some “Islamophobic” zealot who focuses wantonly on Islam. That’s a false characterization of this person.