The Progressive Case Against Sam Harris, Part III

When I first began writing this series, it was my intention that I write a clear and concise summary of the progressive ways of viewing issues such as radical Islam, the war on terror, the political dialogue, and progressive policy prescriptions, in order to definitively show the superiority of these ideas to the imperialism-enabling, intolerant attitude displayed by ‚Äúnew atheists‚ÄĚ (which I still use in quotes).


Not quite up to date, but hello progressives.

Not quite up to date, but hello progressives.

Following feedback from many greatly appreciated readers, and reviewing my work, I feel the first two entries did not entirely make the case.

Instead I got caught in the typical back and forth point scoring that takes place between the ‚Äúnew atheist‚ÄĚ side, spearheaded by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and the progressive (or, insultingly, ‚Äėregressive‚Äô) side lead by Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald.

I think it is time to move past this nitpicky back and forth, which seems to continue endlessly like the low hum of a basement generator, and get to the core of the issue: which ideas make better sense practically for the prosperity and uplifting of the world we live in…the ideas of Sam Harris, or of the (so-slandered) “regressive left”?


An angry man.

An angry man.

There are two immediate obstacles to examining this.  The first is that it is very difficult to talk about the ideas of Sam Harris and have his fans and the man himself  see the criticisms as valid.

Criticisms are met by demands for context, but the bar for context is set so high, it feels like a critic could¬†only either¬†agree with him, or merely say “I respectfully disagree”, and provide little further push-back, lest they be branded a regressive.

I have read The End Of Faith, numerous Sam Harris blogs, Islam: The Future Of Tolerance with Maajid Nawaz, watched many of his interviews, and listened to his podcasts, and yet time and again I am told I misunderstand or don’t know his views. ¬†Maybe there is some secret code I’m missing, or maybe I’m not used to reading a man who appears to speak only in metaphors?

But his fans have the decoder ring:

The Sam Harris secret decoder ring.

The Sam Harris secret decoder ring.

To delve into the practical implications of his views, to describe the effective outcome of his ideas and how they make people feel, is readily called “regressive”.

Also, many of his ideas are put forth as “thought-experiments” with no practical implications, which makes me wonder, why did he even express them? ¬†Just to be controversial?

It makes any legitimate debate with his ideas extremely tricky.

One fan recently crowned me the “poster boy” for the regressive left, when I asked for details about Sam Harris’s gun policy prescriptions (note: I read his blog post¬†about it, but he proposed no specific policies; he just generally said let’s make guns as hard to get as a pilot’s license. ¬†I suppose the reader is left to imagine how that might work).

This kind of discourse is now the norm in these circles. ¬†My friend often mentions a phenomenon called “poisoning the well“. ¬†I believe this is in such liberal use in “new atheist” circles that now any legitimate debate is close to impossible, mostly because they feel personally put upon by progressives¬†attacking¬†Sam Harris.

While this desire to stand up for their idol is admirable, it has had the effect of closing their minds to any alternative arguments.

Progressive-learning YouTube commentator Kyle Kulinski¬†proposed a good faith “cease-fire” between the “new atheist” and “progressive” camps in a¬†well-intentioned but doomed segment: watch here.

The reason I believe it failed is because the “well-poisoning” has been so thorough from both sides: first with misquotes and misrepresentations (making this a case¬†in some “new atheist” minds of: well you did it first! ¬†nyah nyah nyah!), and then cries of “regressive”, “apologist”, “not ‘real’ liberal”, even ‘Jihadi-supporter’ (see Dawkin’s tweet below), culminating in actually blaming liberals for Donald Trump’s repulsive anti-Muslim ideas:

(^ Harris quotes Ali. A. Rizvi’s tweet here)

(note: link to blog by Murray now links to ‘not found’ page)

The liberals created Trump?  The progressives on and who spend every single day bashing Trump, created him?

What an offensive idea. ¬†What a tremendous insult. ¬†Progressives want nothing more than Trump to be gone. ¬†We may have different ideas about why Trump is popular (*cough* racist pandering + politically exploited right-wing base *cough*), but there’s no need for such an insulting charge, just because we disagree.

Finally, this incredible slander from Richard Dawkins. ¬†I couldn’t believe what I was reading. ¬†If the liberals love the Jihadis this much, they must be terrorists too and should be droned to death:

It sounds to me like Dawkins is implying that people like me on the progressive side are terrorist supporters.  Disgusting.

The well couldn’t be more poisoned.

But before I get completely bogged down again in the back and forth, let me lay out the progressive’s point of view on issues of religion and foreign policy.

I understand that my views are not the perfect progressive view, and that numerous examples of other views exist.

Here it is as I see it.

Islam is just another religion.

BUT, the dimensions of this statement are vitally important.  Throughout history religion has been responsible for all kinds of horrific events.

Nobody expects the inquisition.

Nobody expects the inquisition.

Witch burnings, hate crimes, inquisitions, torture, wars, the list is endless.  Most religions in the world have at some point experienced some kind of religiously inspired violence.  In this sense, Islam is not unique in the slightest.

Now, “new atheists” and others are quick to point out that Islam is uniquely violent in the world right now compared to other religions.

I agree entirely with this point, with just one caveat: that this can sometimes obscure the scale of state-sponsored terrorism (“defence”), carried out by the likes of Israel, the USA, now Russia (not forgetting¬†their own foreign adventure in¬†Afghanistan in 1979), the U.K., and a range of other countries.

The presence of religion should not be used to excuse other forms of violence, though naming it may in fact be necessary.

We must stop picking and choosing which terrorism is ok. ¬†Which hospital bombing is horrific because it’s by ISIS?¬†¬†Which is understandable because it’s by Israel?

The Bible in action.

The Bible in action.

Both are horrific. ¬†Let’s please stop the moral relativity.

“New atheists”¬†regularly get extremely fatigued hearing about the crusades which started in 1096. ¬†They ask, “how is it relevant now? ¬†That was a long time ago”. ¬†It is relevant for only one reason, it teaches us this fact: religion is indeed shaped by real world events.

The crusades happened because the Christians wanted to fight back the growing Turkish threat, and the Holy Lands were a part of that, but were preceded by a series of Muslim military victories that spurred the Christians to action.

In other words, the Christians were not hellbent on taking the holy land before they realized that Turkish military influence might bar them access to it forever.

This illustrates the real-world, geo-political component of religious violence.  If religion might be considered part of the explosive element of fanaticism, political and cultural tensions are the fire which lights the fuse.

Muslims are not aliens.  They are also motivated by the desire to achieve cultural dominance, no less than the powers of the west.  We should remember this, while recognizing the problematic nature of the Quran.

Anything else is less than half the picture.

*Islam Is Not A Religion Of Peace

I place the asterix because not all progressives are going to agree on this point, it depends who you ask.

But, I think the idea that any religion is a religion of peace, unless that is somehow the only point of the religion in question, is fallacious and a dogmatic talking point.

Islam is also not a religion of war.  It is a religion.  It has war in it and has aggressive elements, it has negative conservative elements, and it also has good, community-building aspects.

A religion of peace -ish.

A religion of peace -ish.

It can be used for evil, even easily, but this doesn’t define the religion in it’s entirety. ¬†Most people who would say otherwise are merely ideologues, willing to ignore centuries of theological debate.

You can’t look at the totality of a religion by reducing it to only one aspect. ¬†We can discuss the merits and the terrible flaws of Islam. ¬†Let’s just do it fairly and accurately.

It is not “regressive” to say that.

If you think it is, you are probably just a dirty Jew.

(I kid, I kid)

Western actions have been counter-productive.

To put it mildly.

In the “new atheist” realm there appears to only be one possible explanation for the violence in the Islamic world. ¬†It’s¬†religion.

But unfortunately for this narrative, we LIVE in the world TOO. ¬†If a person believes in crazed ideas from scripture, they are¬†not automatically also removed from existence. ¬†They still have a certain perception of the “west”, they still listen to their peer’s views, and have impressions of non-Muslim people and other nations.

If their Imam teaches them to hate the west, their Imam was taught that too and back it goes. ¬†The idea of hating the west is not intrinsic to Islam in a manner that might not be excused by some creative interpretation, forgiving “people of the book” and extending tolerance even to “apostates”.

Muslims indoctrinating their children.

Muslims indoctrinating their children.

But the interactions Muslims have had with the west shapes the way they teach their children. ¬†If America IS in fact the “great Satan”, why is it “regressive”, or self-blaming or guilt-ridden to question: why America?

Why not Russia? ¬†Why isn’t the UK? ¬†Or China?

The Great Satan.

The Great Satan.

To put it as “freedom hating” is highly reductionist. ¬†Many of the people of Afghanistan merely wanted to be left alone in their valleys, they didn’t want Nikes or McDonalds, or “American freedom”.

When America toppled the leader of Iran in the 1953 coup, it set forth a chain of events that had a disastrous outcome, leading to a hatred of America for it’s meddling, and today America’s support for a terror-loving Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia, all because of oil, decimates any remaining concept of western moral superiority.

America’s use of military has lead to it’s becoming the Great Satan. ¬†There is no section in the Quran stating that America is the enemy, at the time there was no America to hate. ¬†How did Islamic radicals decide¬†that America was the number one target? ¬†I submit that it is in large part due to the interaction of America with other countries and cultures in the world that lead to this.

It’s not America blaming. ¬†I’m not giving excuses to radical Islamists. ¬†I’m mentioning facts in order to provide context. ¬†That’s all. ¬†It’s important to learn history, in order to not repeat it.

As a solution, I think America should reduce it’s presence overseas and use the immense resources available to rebuild America into a powerhouse of new technology and clean energy. ¬†This will allow them to decouple themselves from the hideous human right’s abusers Saudi Arabia, and stop the gradually intensifying hatred for America propped up by instances of collateral damage and moral relativism.

The greatest tool against ISIS.

The greatest tool against ISIS.

It could become the indispensable nation, also rebuilding and reinvigorating other countries through investment in education and infrastructure.  America is at times the beacon the world looks to.  Nobody will want to attack a country they so admire, and everybody will want to defend it.

But now, America is increasingly being seen as a dysfunctional, hypocritical and greedy giant, with eroding liberal values giving way to jingoism and ethnocentrism, clinging to outdated energy sources and sliding backwards from it’s great gains since World War II. ¬†The Marshall Plan built America up…it has been slowly eroding ever since.

Stop Treating ISIS Like Islamic Scholars

An Islamic Scholar.

An Islamic Scholar.

I understand, you understand…we all understand. ¬†There are horrific things in the Quran. ¬†All secularists get this to some degree, and we (generally) reject the idea that “Islam is a religion of peace”.

However, why are we expected to believe this is the only thing which defines Islam, solely because of these vicious terrorists? ¬†I don’t believe the violence of the Old Testament defines Christianity, nor does the love of Jesus.

It’s messy, it’s complicated. ¬†It’s often ugly. ¬†But it’s not simple.

Countries which implement Sharia Law are shit-holes, no question there.  But the Sharia Law question is also varied among Muslims in terms of what it means to them.  To some Muslims, Sharia is compatible with western law.  To others, a replacement.

ISIS however has decided only the most extreme interpretation of Sharia is valid, and only the most extreme forms of violence should be used in their fight for a caliphate.  They believe in intolerance and hatred for minorities, women and homosexuals.  They believe in death.

My question is, why are “new atheists” treating such people are Islamic scholars? ¬†There has been centuries of Islamic theological thought put forth by non-terrorist Muslim scholars. ¬†This extreme interpretation is relatively new.

While¬†Abd al-Wahhab was an influential radical prior to the first Saudi State, it was¬†Ibn Saud’s use of his fundamentalist approach in government that lead to the enshrinement of Wahhabism as the quintessential approach to extreme Quranic interpretation. ¬†There was many prior schools of thoughts,¬†or Tafsir, that were supplanted by this perverse marriage of religious sect and state.

This disgusting, corrupt form of government has continued, bolstering Wahhabism and even exploding in popularity since the 1970s thanks to increased funding from petroleum and key international events.

I personally believe that Wahhabism is an abomination, and so is ISIS. ¬†While of course religious history has been violent, we have not seen this form of triumphalist, vicious Islamism with more consistency than the violence of Christianity’s past.

“New atheists” however really seem to put a lot of stock in these people:

I was slightly shocked by this tweet. ¬†I hope it was sarcasm. ¬†Let’s not ‘patronise’ sadistic terroristic murderers?

I would see this as sarcasm, but Dawkins does have a history of saying such things. ¬†Just look to his obsession over ‘clock boy’ Ahmed Mohamed:

Further, radical atheist (yes I know some people take issue with this term, but this guy is pretty far out) Michael A. Sherlock wrote an entire blog article vehemently emphasizing the basis of ISIS in Quranic scriptures.

Why was Sherlock so determined to tie ISIS to Islam? ¬†We regularly hear that if you don’t absolutely and unequivocally call ISIS Islamic then…something…bad…will happen? ¬†What this bad thing is, I don’t know. ¬†Maybe ISIS will say, “good point”, and lay down their arms.

I do not understand why it is so important. ¬†I have asked many “new atheists” to explain it to me. ¬†Not a single one has been able to make a compelling case, other than: “if you don’t name the problem, you can’t solve it”.

No. ¬†If you can’t agree on what the problem IS, you can’t solve it. ¬†But it’s your word against mine. ¬†The Quran vs. human events and history.

ISIS are not scholars. ¬†They are vicious bloodthirsty barbarians and murderers. ¬†Every time you legitimize these people, a puppy loses it’s wings.

Progressivism Is Secularism

“New Atheists” often claim to be secularists, but a major component of secularism is religious pluralism:

“Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.” –¬†

I am for a complete and total decoupling of government from religion, like many other progressives. ¬†This is something many “new atheists” also espouse.

However, the next tenet is growing visibly absent from “new atheist” circles. ¬†They are starting to advocate a kind of intolerance for values which are not “compatible” with “democratic secularism”.

If they are solely talking about extreme religious laws, or a kind of anarchic Islamic street justice, I agree entirely. ¬†That has no place in a democratic society. ¬†But if they are talking about “Islam” writ large, it is impossible for me to agree.

Not because I don’t think Islam isn’t a backwards ideology, but that for better or worse, humans have the right to their own beliefs. ¬†My Muslim and Christian and atheist brothers and sisters have the right to believe whatever they want. ¬†I can’t control that. ¬†I can only advocate for better ideas.

Still, they can’t “implement” Sharia Law. ¬†They must abide by the laws of their own country.¬† They can’t abuse their children.

But if western laws no longer allow them to have their beliefs, these laws are not much better than Sharia Law in the first place, and Muslims will never be able to settle.  Only more alienation and radicalization will occur.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

The founding fathers of America understood that they could not dictate beliefs to others.  I firmly and strongly believe the only way to change minds and deradicalize is through education.  Intolerant attitudes, laws, and the destruction of a pluralistic secular society will be the death knell for any hopes of peaceful co-existence with Muslims.

In the meantime, we all must follow our laws, so long as they are reasonable.

So above is the groundwork for the progressive case against radical extremism. ¬†It’s not just saying “ISIS is Islamic” which will reduce any level of radicalism in this world. ¬†It’s setting the example on the world stage.

Walk the walk by showing this planet that America and the western powers are the real stalwarts of pluralism and tolerance. ¬†It does not mean we have to tolerate violence, oppression and anti-scientific views, it means we have to show people that it’s a better way.

That it leads to prosperity.  That it minimizes bigotry and hatred.

When it comes to secular values, there is no choice.  They are non-negotiable.  But we cannot force other cultures to be the same at the point of a gun, because history shows us, it never works.

We must enforce secularism in our own nations, and this means separation of church and state, and most of all religious tolerance.  Without this aspect I can absolutely unequivocally guarantee you, significant religious terrorism and extremism will never end.

Stop feeding ISIS. ¬†You’ve heard of “stop feeding the trolls”.

Now I ask you to “stop feeding the terrorists”, by telling them they are right. ¬†They are not right. ¬†They are abhorrent.


I know, for an article titled “The Progressive Case Against Sam Harris, Part III”, there is a noticeable lack of content by mister¬†Sam Harris. ¬†I addressed some of his views as best I could in parts I & II, but the omission of further content by him is purposeful.

I believe that Sam Harris has become a figure who is beyond reproach by his fans.  Due to this, I cannot in good conscience further attempt to address his views.  I know that the only qualification available to critique the man is being his fan.  I am not his fan.

I have read his books, his articles, heard his podcasts, followed him on Twitter, and seen his interviews.

I am convinced that there is no further content by him that I could consume which would give me better context, unless he started to say things which were radically different.

For this reason, I choose to end this series on a whimper.  I hope the above case for progressivism has shown you that progressives do have great ideas on how to deal with radical Islam, just that their ideas are nuanced and take the long view.

But the well is poisoned, and I am your enemy, just because I disagree with you.

I know that there is not much I could write to appeal to the people who disagree with me.  This makes me sad.  Because all I want is a dialogue.

I know that with a poison well, this is not really possible.

"Oh no guv'nar, I got poisoned!!" - Ms. Well.

“Oh no guv’nar, I got poisoned!!” – Ms. Well.

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