Sam Harris vs. Islam


Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

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.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[Cr0ss-posted from Rethinking Religion Blog]

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  1. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 19, 2014 @3:59 pm

    Beautifully put, maha.

    Religion does a great deal of good around the world.
    And, of all of the religious documents I’ve read, they all preach peace, and helping people who are poor and needy.

    But, all it takes is some demagogue, and fanatical followers, and it’s genocide time!

  2. joanr16  •  Sep 19, 2014 @4:41 pm

    The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either.

    Oh, I think Mr. Harris’s ignorance of Islam is shriekingly obvious. I’d love to see him (and a couple other bigots I could name) on Jeopardy where the categories would include the actual content of the Koran, the history of Islam, atrocities of the Crusades, the religious plagiarism of the Ku Klux Klan, etc.

    The dude’s pretty selective for an atheist, anyway.

  3. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Sep 19, 2014 @5:46 pm

    Hm. Seems to me like a case of “Christians don’t behead journalists!”

    “No, Christians can vote to bomb the (expletive) out of their enemies; why would they need to behead journalists?”

    Islam happens to be a religion of a lot of people without powerful countries that can bomb the (expletive) out of their enemies; if they belonged to a nation with that power, I reckon they’d make different kinds of threats. (But suddenly, if a prominent spokesperson said “we should conquer their nations, kill all their leaders and convert them…” it would be a *big* deal demanding condemnation from all people.)

  4. JDM  •  Sep 19, 2014 @6:40 pm

    I tend toward being anti-religion myself. But on a number of topics (there’s been a flurry of posting activity at Freethought blogs about Harris, Dawkins, and others’ massive missteps re misogyny lately) Harris is an ass. His percentage of acting like an ass is higher than Dawkins’; maybe higher than Penn Gillette, which is really bad.

  5. Dan  •  Sep 19, 2014 @7:23 pm

    Your description is much more nuanced than mine.

    I’ve always maintained that religion was rarely the cause of conflict, but rather a motivator of the unwashed troops to do the lethal bidding of their political masters.

  6. buddhacrone  •  Sep 19, 2014 @7:51 pm

    ISIS is just another power hungry bunch of people who will use any excuse to do what they want to do. Islam is the current excuse. The whole thing is complete BS.

  7. David Evans  •  Sep 20, 2014 @5:43 am

    It’s a minor point, but believing that all apostates must die is not inconsistent with saving Jews. Or with amicably meeting non-Muslims.

  8. Bob  •  Sep 20, 2014 @9:01 am

    It seems that “religion” is used as a shield of sorts…Hide behind the Bible is common here in the States…Hide behind the Koran…evangelicals hide behind their checking accounts…etc…Not to bring religion into this conversation, but it seems that in all or most of existing religious texts, there are warnings about “false prophets, and false teachers”…I was just wondering if this was a standard warning in most faiths???

  9. maha  •  Sep 20, 2014 @10:45 am

    //I was just wondering if this was a standard warning in most faiths???// I assume so.

  10. erinyes  •  Sep 20, 2014 @9:10 am

    Seems to me, the rise of Isis is due to bombing and conducting other forms of war in a part of the world for over 40 years, supporting Israel unconditionally , installing and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, and demonizing an entire faith via the mass media for decades.
    I don’t know much about Islam, but I remember Muhammad Ali choosing jail over Vietnam, one of my high school friend’s dad (a Muslim) quit his job at Honeywell during that war because he didn’t want to be involved in killing, he held a PhD in electrical engineering. Then when my mom was still alive, she had two couples who would visit here weekly; one Muslim from Guyana, the other Catholics. The Muslim couple would bring her meals and run errands for her. The catholic couple would help her also, but thought it acceptable to “borrow” things from the garage or refrigerator without permission. I’m not saying all Muslims good,
    catholics suck.
    This is a very complicated subject because religion is so nuanced. I have heard friends, Jewish and Christians alike, saying “we should just nuke the entire Muslim world”. That’t pretty extreme. I am afraid this situation is about to escalate, the reason is staring us in the face.

  11. Lynne  •  Sep 20, 2014 @9:12 am

    Thank you, Barbara. You state this so well. It seems to me that religion is used to divide people, US vs. THEM, so that our real reasons for hostilities are vindicated. Religion is indeed an accelerant.

  12. Talal  •  Sep 20, 2014 @9:31 am

    I encourage you to read the Quran, in its entirety. It is in English here

  13. maha  •  Sep 20, 2014 @10:42 am

    Talal — I give you the benefit of the doubt it’s a lovely text. I have enough of my own scriptures I’ll never get around to reading, however.

  14. Doug  •  Sep 20, 2014 @10:13 am

    There are 1.6 BILLION Muslims in the world. Muslims make up about .8% in the US (that’s eight tenths of one percent). Since most Muslims in the US (opinion here) are not supporters of Sharia Law, it’s (at most) a couple of tenths of one percent in the US population that advocate Sharia – and yet the haters would have you believe the US legal system is teetering on the edge of adopting public stoning for infidelity.

    By comparison, Islam is the second largest religion in the world (and growing) compared to Christianity 2.1 billion (and shrinking). I’m not sure if the long term potential that Islam could achieve global majority (and political dominance) is feeding the call for new crusades.

    Malcolm X and Mohammad Ali were converts to Islam. The boxer went to jail for refusing to go to the Vietnam war on religious grounds. Malcolm X was a convert to the Nation of Islam, which was racist and violent. (I base my opinions of Malcolm X and Nation of Islam on his autobiography.) In keeping with the tenets of Islam, Malcolm X made the pilgrimage to Mecca which resulted in extended contact with Muslims from around the world, many of whom were not black, the majority of whom were not angry. He discovered that the version he ‘knew’ was a perversion of Islam compared to how it is practiced globally. His conversion to ‘real’ Islam would cost him his life, because when Malcolm X split with Nation of Islam to teach mainstream Islam, he was murdered for it – as he expected.

    When my daughter went to kindergarten she befriended a black girl who was as nervous as Kathy was. Now they’re in 6th grade and they are still like sisters. There’s a VERY short list of people my wife will entrust our daughter to, and her folks are top of the list. Oh, and they are Muslim and quite devout – religious holidays, fasting, dietary restrictions, etc. When idiots assert that Islam is evil, it’s a prelude to an argument for using military force against the civilian population without discrimination. (Women and children murdered with US hardware, wielded by US soldiers.) In effect, it’s a policy no different than the Holocaust.

    I take the proposal of war upon any religion personally – I have Muslim friends, and Jewish friends and even a token number of Christian friends. They aren’t friends because of their affiliation – it’s the kind of people they are. I’m convinced by their diversity that there’s good folks (and a few bad ones) in any group – regardless of their beliefs. I think the Constitution was shaped by that conviction, which is why Freedom of Religion is enshrined in the First Amendment.

  15. Stratplayer  •  Sep 20, 2014 @12:21 pm

    I concur, LongHairedWeirdo, and I would add that the only reason Christians are no longer torturing, burning, beheading and hanging others in the name of Jesus is that Christianity has been tamed by the secular values of the Enlightenment. Christianity did not abandon its millennia-long tradition of murder and mayhem on its own.

  16. Doug  •  Sep 21, 2014 @8:21 am

    Stratplayer – This is splitting hairs but it’s an important hair. Don’t be offended. I agree with the intent of what you said.

    ‘Christianity’ isn’t ‘tamed’ and it can’t ‘abandon its millennia-long tradition of murder’. Religions have doctrine, occasionally traits but violence is conducted by individuals using the cloak of religion to justify brutality. (Acts of charity and wisdom are also the product of individuals possibly inspired by their religion, but individuals inspired not doctrine inspired. A Holy book by itself never did anything for anyone.)

    Barbara cited reported cases of violence by Buddhist Monks . Amonc classes of clerics, they don’t come more non-violent than Buddhism. That’s the whole point. It’s never a ‘religion’ it’s the people who use religion for very non-religious reasons.

  17. Phaedrus  •  Sep 23, 2014 @4:52 pm

    I had to go read Sam’s entire piece, because what you are accusing him of didn’t seem to line up with what I’ve read and heard of him. Of course Sam doesn’t say all Muslim’s are bad, as you imply, or that Islam is the sole source of ISIS, as you explicitly state. He says the ISIS can find support for what they do in their Holy scriptures. I’ve heard him make a similar point about Christians – that the Inquisitors were very well versed in their scripture and could be confident they were doing God’s will.
    Sam’s point is that ideas matter. If you are a Christian or Muslim who doesn’t require death of witches or apostates, I salute you, but it needs to be pointed you are ignoring the holy scriptures.
    The holy books of all major religions are full of beauty, poetry and wisdom. They are also full of misogyny, bigotry and appalling directives for barbarism – as well as obvious falsehoods.
    I’ve heard Sam say, more than once, if your personal religion rejects all of the terrible things contained in these books he doesn’t have a problem with your belief system. But why would someone like that call themselves “Christian” or “Muslim”?
    That’s really the thrust of his message – these people are acting upon the terrible dictates of these religions, dictates that most other adherents have given up in order to fit into modern, secular, civilized countries. If someone burns a witch or beats their child they are not acting un-biblicaly, they’re on firm theological ground. To pretend otherwise in being dishonest – and that’s what Sam is getting at : let’s not pretend that these people are somehow “un-islamic”, that they aren’t acting out the dictates of their religion.
    Too long already – but I’ll just say that I’ve heard Sam talk in support of spirituality and honest conversations about all of these subjects. I don’t agree with him on many subjects – but let’s talk about him honestly and not a strawman.

  18. Phaedrus  •  Sep 23, 2014 @4:56 pm

    PS – why am I represented in my posts as a pink hexagon with sharp, pointy teeth? I’m just a big fuzzy guy in real life… hmmm, I need to figure this inter-tubes thing out…

  19. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 23, 2014 @5:12 pm

    I’m sorry that you feel that you’re hexagon misrepresents you – because my ‘picto-graph’ captures me perfectly! 😉

  20. Phaedrus  •  Sep 23, 2014 @5:16 pm

    My nose is MUCH bigger :0