As an atheist, I don't care when religious types claim some interpretation of their faith is "not true." After all, this behavior has been with us since phenotypic diversity in Scotsmen . We know very well what the speaker means. X is something they don't like, and they don't want it associated with Y (usually themselves). If for some reason an atheist took that claim literally, it should be a mere redundancy, eliciting the response "Yes, of course, that version too." However, some atheists have been taking the claim too seriously. And I find that I do care when atheists waste time combating this well known fallacy, and (more baffling to me) try to argue what interpretation should be considered a believer's "true" faith. This activity suggests they have lost sight of what is important, as it often undercuts efforts required to achieve real, secular gains. Current events have made this a relevant issue to discuss, as it raises (to my mind) a moral question for atheists operating as public intellectuals.
When President Obama recently announced the US military would engage Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria, one would think that the New Atheists who banged the drums of "war with Islam" the loudest would have been happy. Instead they were upset, not with the details, but the wording with which it was delivered [2,3]. In doing what any politician would do to raise support for a broad military effort that requires large numbers of muslims, Obama used the rhetorical device of defining IS as not Islamic, going so far as to claim IS is not even religious. Of course that, like most things US presidents say, is pure hokum designed to please the people they need to work with. He was talking to their prejudices. Yet Sam Harris took Obama's words seriously, and blasted his speech as if its factual inaccuracies could serve as a backdoor allowing Islamic militants to recover from any military defeat and apparently (according to his suggestive title "Sleepwalking to Armageddon") destroy the world? Jerry Coyne wrote a follow-up to Sam's essay that at times flirted with the kind of commentary that concerns me, going so far as to call Obama an apologist (while basically declaring war?), but ended in a very lucid analysis of the nature of "true" faiths and our discussions of them.:
"In the end, there is no “true” religion in the factual sense, for there is no good evidence supporting their truth claims. Neither are there “true” religions in the moral sense. Every faith justifies itself and its practices by appeal to authority, revelation, and dogma. There are just some religions we like better than others because of their practical consequences. If that’s what we mean by “true,” we should just admit it. There’s no shame in that, for it’s certainly the case that societies based on some religions are more dysfunctional than others. Morality itself is neither objectively “true” nor “false,” but at bottom rests on subjective preferences: the “oughts” that come from what we see as the consequences of behaving one way versus another. By all means let us say that ISIS is a strain of Islam that is barbaric and dysfunctional, but let us not hear any nonsense that it’s a “false religion”. ISIS, like all religious movements, is based on faith; and faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational."
Yes, I liked that a lot.
In tweeting my approval, I mentioned that (because I hold this position) I didn't understand why Sam Harris bothers arguing about the nature of "true" Islam. Unexpectedly, Sam Harris replied to that tweet challenging me whether the Koran would recommend eating bacon or not. He seemed to miss the whole point of that last paragraph and so what I was saying. Of course there are verses that would nix pork, but what would that have to do with any version of Islam being more "true"? He felt that I was somehow misunderstanding him and explained he was referring to reads being more or less plausible. Yes, and that is not what I was criticizing, only his use of wording to suggest more or less plausible reads are somehow more or less "true" for muslims, with of course the most plausible being (by necessity) the most true.
Sam eventually dropped out, I would hope because he understood what I was actually criticizing. However another person continued to press the point Sam had made, suggesting that I must have misread Sam's meaning. He asked for quotes, and in digging through Sam's writings for examples I realized an essay on losing sight of what's important was in order. But first a couple quotes to show what I was talking about.:
"Again, we’re not talking about a distortion of the “true” Islam. The ideology that gives us jihadism is arguably the most plausible version of the faith available, according to an honest reading of the scriptures.[my emphasis]"
"Unfortunately, in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice.[my emphasis]"
Admittedly these do not show Sam using the word "true" himself. However, the first quote shows he is talking about what constitutes "true" Islam, and I am concerned with any claim (not just the use of the word true) that argues a singularly "true" interpretation of any religion. "Most plausible version according to an honest reading" leaves no room for equally plausible or honest reads beyond the one that Sam is endorsing. Same for "best examples of the doctrine." If one wants to quibble whether they mean the same thing as "true", it is easy to point out that if Obama had said "Only moderate muslims practice the most plausible version of Islam, exhibiting the best examples of its doctrine", and "IS practices a completely dishonest, implausible reading of Islamic scripture" Sam arguably would (and certainly could) have written the same essay.
To my mind, atheists have no business getting into the scriptural interpretation game, judging what is "the most (honest, plausible)" or "the best (example, authority)" or "the 'true' (doctrine, tenets)". Sure if one wants to point out that a specific read is valid, that can make sense in limited circumstances. Same for arguing a relatively more plausible read given a specified (assumed) context, if one happens to study religious texts. But what is the point in trying to argue anything beyond that? I made this point earlier in the final part of my response to Sam's book the Moral Landscape.:
"If he believes (as an atheist) that holy scripture is man made and open to a variety of interpretations, what is he doing talking about "true Islam" at all? When people cite pretty moderate Koranic verses, [Sam] discusses how important Islamic scholars cite supplementary material as being equally important, with quotes from those texts allowing for greater militancy. How on earth does that particular interpretation count as more "true" than any other group's interpretations which downplay such material? Even if we assume the Koran is filled with verses that support militancy, how would that make those selecting the more moderate interpretation (even if cherry-picking) less "true" as believers? It is all storytelling, with inherently conflicting verses that allows for such editing!
Consequently there is no legitimate reason for anyone (particularly someone committed to human well-being) to take a position defending/advocating the side practicing violence as more "true". It might be "original", or "highly popular after the rise of certain sects", but "true" islam? And even if it was arguably a "true" version of Islam in the past, it is not the [singularly] "true" Islam practiced today. Religions have constantly splintered then renewed themselves for new eras, so why should Islam be an exception? Harris praises the peaceful tendencies of the Amish, but if he were around at their formation it seems he would have supported their persecutors, deriding the Amish for not following the "true" Christian faith.
If [Sam means what he says in the Moral Landscape about moral truths], and moderate Islam is at least closer to allowing for human flourishing than militant fundamentalist interpretations, why is he not advocating that as "true" or at least "truer" Islam?"
That last sentence gets at what I mean by losing sight of what is important. The only interpretation or denominations we (as atheists) should be worried about "endorsing" are those that share similar secular goals. The idea that we should be concerned whether their interpretation is what the most literal reading of their texts might indicate their God(s) really want (which is itself an assumption) seems absurd on its face. At times it seems that New Atheists believe that by forcing religious people into a choice between "the worst" their religion might demand and "the best" atheism has to offer they will come to their senses and convert. Indeed reading Sam and Jerry's posts [2,3,7], one wonders if they believe something would have been accomplished if Obama had announced "Look, Islam is bad news, and IS is the poster child of their true desires. These folks demand death to apostates and nonbelievers, just read their scripture!"
Today, Islam is undergoing a form of civil war (intellectual and physical), and it is their war about valid interpretations of Islam, not ours. We should only be concerned with helping those that want to keep Islam a part of secular, democratic societies (where it already is) and encourage values that allow compatibility with such ends (where it is not). That might entail helping many different denominations of Islam, without naive expectations that conversion to atheism is their (and our) only hope. As it is, religious societies built secular governments long before the rise of atheism, ironically to protect the religious from themselves. One would think given the violence in the Middle East, Islamic nations could be ripe for this prospective solution.
Towards such ends, Sam deserves a "shot in the foot" award. :
"Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.
Yes, many Muslims happily ignore the apostasy and blasphemy of their neighbors, view women as the moral equals of men, and consider anti-Semitism contemptible. But there are also Muslims who drink alcohol and eat bacon. All of these persuasions run counter to the explicit teachings of Islam to one or another degree. And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture.
A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out. Transforming Islam into a truly benign faith will require a miracle of re-interpretation. And a few intrepid reformers, such as Maajid Nawaz, are doing their best to accomplish it.[my emphasis]"
So basically Sam argues that on top of reform being an impossible task (requiring miracles, really? moderates already exist Sam) potential reformers should be seen (according to best reads) as dishonest turncoats to Islam. And anyway it seems that if any belief in Islam is left alive then people are "vulnerable" to militancy. Well good luck with that project Maajid! To be fair, Sam has recently tweeted support for Maajid's cause, but it might equally be useful if he stayed well away from discussing his personal "revelations" about Islamic scripture in the future.
The attitude and practice shown above not only shuts us out of helping believers grow secular values within religious communities, it has diverted efforts away from the temporal, earth bound issues that ought to be the top concerns of atheists. Without God(s) shouldn't just about anything other than correct interpretation of scripture be our main topic of discussion? It is notable that in neither Sam or Jerry's essays, as concerned as they were with Obama's opinions of "true" interpretations, neither one of them mentioned his working interpretation of executive powers as defined by the US constitution. That is a document written by men, and just as vulnerable to autocratic or democratic interpretations. The only "real world" issue within that speech was his apparent belief that he did not need authorization from Congress to direct military assets at IS. Shouldn't that have been an atheist's greater concern?
Funny enough, after Obama set out his plan Jerry's jimmies were finally rustled by down to earth realities.:
"First he said he had no plan, then his plan was airstrikes, and now his plan is U.S. airstrikes combined with “boots on the ground” from other countries, like Turkey or Lebanon. And that plan is just dumb. Not because it’s unworkable in principle, but because it’s unworkable in practice.
What do we do? I have no idea. Half the time I think that we should just disengage from the region completely, at least from the futile wars in which we’ve already lost so many lives. Let ISIS do what they can; is it our responsibility to police the world? But then I think of all the innocents being slaughtered by that group, and how nobody but the U.S. can do anything about that, even if only by leading. Not only that, but clearly ISIS, if it becomes a dominant force in the region, will export its methods to our own country. It needs Lebensraum for its religion and its Caliphate.
Perhaps Obama is stymied by an unwinnable situation, and that accounts for his waffling. But right now all I see is that we’ll be pouring money and effort into a venture that is doomed to failure."
From the beginning people like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill were questioning the utility of military action. On twitter, Sam ripped into Scahill for raising the questions that apparently are just occurring to Jerry, demanding if his doubts meant we should just let IS run roughshod over Iraq. Given that Sam has not challenged Jerry, one wonders if perhaps he has similar reservations now that his cataclysmic at-war-with-Islam rhetoric has borne fruit. Frankly, these are the types of issues atheists should be mulling over. These are secular concerns.
Sam also had a pretty public dust-up with Glenn Greenwald, and Sam's inability to depart from theistic concerns clearly blocked his vision regarding Greenwald's actual contribution to the problem of militant Islamic regimes.:
"Liberals like Greenwald, who are so eager to swing the flail of Islamophobia, display a sickening insensitivity to the plight of women, homosexuals, and freethinkers throughout the Muslim world. At this moment, millions of women and girls have been abandoned to illiteracy, compulsory marriage, and lives of slavery and abuse under the guise of “multiculturalism” and “religious sensitivity.” And the most liberal Muslim minds are forced into hiding. The best way to address this problem is by no means obvious. But lying about its cause, and defaming those who speak honestly in defense of a global civil society, seems a very unlikely path to a solution.[my emphasis]"
It is an open question to Sam where Greenwald exhibited disregard for any of those oppressed people, and where he defamed anyone for speaking honestly in defense of a global civil society. All he did was criticize specific actions that to his mind did not work to promote a global civil society. But the irony here is palpable. While Sam attempts the atheistic conversion of billions, the work of Greenwald (and those he works with) explicitly helps those very people Sam claims to be concerned with. Glenn's apparent goal is the empowerment of individuals, particularly with regard to freedom of communication and personal autonomy. Perhaps these cannot be directly enacted within militant Islamic regimes, but by building and growing such protections (and technologies) within Western nations it will assist individuals living outside who want to do the same. And in any case, what good is talking about a global civil society while letting that slip away right where we live?
Sam and most other New Atheists appear to be so unreasonably frightened by the "threat" of militant Islam, that they cannot see more important matters developing within their own society. And if they are not blind to these issues, they certainly seem mute. There is a "civil war" of sorts going on in Western nations (thankfully just intellectual) regarding the interpretation of wholly secular documents which is vastly more important than the "most plausible" interpretations of Islamic scripture. That "war" is being lost by default based on the success of government obfuscation and a deadly combination of public apathy and misdirected concern (due to a heightened fear of militant Islam, which the government and New Atheists promote).
Outside of Daniel Dennett (and kudos to him!), I have not seen any prominent New Atheist openly discuss the important revelations of government overreach delivered by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald . Nor have they promoted movements designed to enhance freedom of communication and protect individuals from government persecution . In fact Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Michael Shermer have all questioned (and I don't mean rationally as skeptics) Edward Snowden as a person, rather than writing anything intelligent about the facts that have been revealed (and which started a conversation even President Obama admits is important).
Last February, Sam endorsed Jeremy Scahill's documentary questioning drone strikes and covert warfare, suggesting it made him start thinking about such issues :
"Any response to terrorism seems likely to kill and injure innocent people, and such collateral damage will always produce some number of future enemies. But Dirty Wars made me think that the consequences of producing such casualties covertly are probably far worse. This may not sound like a Road to Damascus conversion, but it is actually quite significant. My view of specific questions has changed—for instance, I now believe that the assassination of al-Awlaki set a very dangerous precedent—and my general sense of our actions abroad has grown conflicted. I do not doubt that we need to spy, maintain state secrets, and sometimes engage in covert operations, but I now believe that the world is paying an unacceptable price for the degree to which we are doing these things. The details of how we have been waging our war on terror are appalling, and Scahill’s film paints a picture of callousness and ineptitude that shocked me. Having seen it, I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent with respect to my government’s use of force."
Unfortunately the rise of IS appears to have spooked Sam back into a mindset less open to such skepticism, though as mentioned war-post-facto he has yet to comment on Jerry's concerns which (to some degree) appeared to mirror Scahill's.
It would be a breath of fresh air to find public intellectuals who claim to represent the concerns of atheists (that is people who do not believe in supernatural entities) spending more of their time discussing what constitutes the "most plausible" interpretation of our legal texts and "best examples" of what we want practiced by our own secular societies. Those are the things we have an arguable chance of effecting, and where the actual protections of our rights as individuals will be found. And if such intellectuals must discuss Islamic nations, and cultures, then discussions limited to who within them share the same longterm civil interests and how to help empower them to make real secular gains.
This essay could have been titled Losing one's moral bearings in the Middle East pt2. If you like the sentiments within this, I recommend reading the other article which concentrates on atheist concerns in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.