My task here is to take a look at the supposedly ironclad arguments that Sam Harris – as my metonymy for the broader New Atheist crew – presents for the role of religion in global violence and criticize them in detail. My goal is not necessarily to prove the case that religion never causes behaviour, or never causes violence (though, I also don’t rule this possibility out). My claim is narrower in scope: I argue that if all the evidence we have for religion’s role in violence is the suite of Sam Harris’ arguments presented in his writings, then the conclusion must be that religion never killed anyone. The received view of Harris’ style and quality of argument, held by his fans at least, is that his arguments are strong and well-researched. By the end of this article I hope to demonstrate that this impression couldn’t be further from the truth. Time and again the presentation of Sam’s arguments is infinitely better prepared than the actual content of the arguments, which are consistently unscholarly, lazily structured and most importantly of all, wrong. Harris’ reputation for clarity of thought and strength of argument is no more than a well-presented myth.
Having exposed the general weakness of the New Atheist case presented by Sam Harris, the second part of this article takes another step and advances the scientific and philosophical evidence that undermines further the argument that religion causes violence. I also argue that, despite the years it has had to coalesce, the New Atheist argument has not adopted a credible thesis that can be tested and demonstrated to be the case, instead remaining ignorant of contemporary science and philosophy in favour of gut intuitions.
1.1. The New Atheist Case
Here I will summarise the kinds of claims that New Atheists make about the causal role of religion in violence, focussing in on the writing and presentations of Sam Harris. Let me briefly catalogue the broad claims Sam makes about the role religion, in particular Islam, plays in violence:
“So let us now make sense of the impossible by acknowledging the obvious: there is a direct link between the doctrine of Islam and Muslim terrorism” i
Harris’ central claim expressed here is that religious beliefs matter to behaviour. In fact, certain beliefs associated with religious ideologies are a huge factor in people’s actions. Wars are fought, and terrorists touch off suicide vests because of beliefs, faulty beliefs, spread by religious texts and teachings. Religious beliefs are a particularly dangerous species of belief because they are irrational, intolerant and often agitate for violent treatment of non-believers. Religion and its texts are in this way the cause of these horrors:
“Every person living in a western democracy should read the Koran and discover the relentlessness with which non-Muslims are vilified in its pages. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for moderate Muslims to indulge.” ii
Religious beliefs, like a mental pandemic, infect people’s minds and drive them to behave in irrational ways. There is, according to the New Atheist line, a direct causal link between people’s religious beliefs and their violent behaviours. Harris critics and fans alike can agree that this is a defining feature of Sam’s ongoing criticism of religion, in particular Islam.
Putting this into the form of a rough argument will give us a hard target:
1. Religious beliefs are conveyed to believers by religious texts.
2. These religious texts and religious beliefs encourage particular acts of violence.
3. Religious believers do in fact perform these particular acts of violence.
4. These particular acts of violence are caused by the religious beliefs held by religious believers.
Conclusion: Religious beliefs, conveyed directly to religious believers by religious texts, are the cause of particular acts of violence.
Feel free to take issue with these premises, but they seem pretty fair and representative of Sam’s case to me. It’s this overall argument, and Sam’s attempts defend these premises, that the reader should bear in mind when getting into the criticisms I level below.
2. Ripping Off the Band-Aid: Sam Harris Is Wrong About Everything
Here I present four broad arguments in opposition to Sam Harris’ own arguments. I have attempted to cover a broad enough range of Harris’ writing in order to make it representative of his claims generally. Firstly, I argue that religion needs to be shown to be the difference-maker to behaviour, something Harris and other New Atheists have failed to do. Secondly, I target the consistent failure of Sam Harris to present evidence to support his claims – I am not even disputing the content of his evidence, or his claims in this section, but rather the consistent poverty of scholarly effort in all of his writing, which further undermines his overall claims. Thirdly, I target his reliance on taking statements of motive at face-value to demonstrate that religion is indeed the cause of violence. This proves to be actually self-destructive to the New Atheist case, rather than supporting its claims. Finally, I show how when Sam does indeed provide evidence of his claims (anecdotes, research) it is almost exclusively based on assertions that a fact exists or is the case, rather than real evidence of something – he relies almost exclusively on assertions to evidence his claims about people’s motives and beliefs.
2.1. Religion Is the Difference-Maker to Behaviour
Sam Harris argues that when considering the causes of violence, we should consider religion the primary cause in many cases. Here I am targeting the fourth premise:
These particular acts of violence are caused by the religious beliefs held by religious believers.
Let’s narrow down the claim to something concrete, an example that Sam and his detractors frequently discuss: suicide bombing. On suicide bombing, Harris makes the following claims about its cause:
“What is the difference that makes the difference? Religion.” iii
“What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam.” iv
“…if the doctrine of Islam were different, the beliefs of devout Muslims would be different, and this difference would have consequences at the level of their behavior.” v
Both religion generally, and Islam specifically, are what Sam argues make the difference to suicide bombing. Here Sam touches on a widespread intuition in the philosophy of science about causation: that the causes of events are those things that make a difference to the outcome. The hunt for causes is the hunt for difference-makers, those variables that have the last say in how events turn out. This is a highly influential view, and we might as well test out whether this difference making account of cause and effect that Sam invokes supports his claims or not.
To test out whether Sam is right about religion and suicide bombing, we need to dig into a little bit of philosophy of science. It’s widely agreed amongst philosophers interested in causal explanation that the best way to look for difference-makers is via an intervention. An intervention is some kind of manipulation of the value of a particular variable. Once we’ve manipulated that variable (and no other) we can measure its influence on the value of a second variable. If an intervention on the value of X changes (or increases the likelihood of a change in) Y, then X is the cause of Y.
Let’s say Mary has a pack of matches. She strikes one and it lights. What was the cause of the lighting? There are some background conditions required, like the presence of oxygen in the air surrounding Mary and the match. But oxygen isn’t the difference-maker to the match’s lighting – adding or removing oxygen from the environment doesn’t cause the match to light. The difference-maker is, of course, Mary’s striking of the match. Without that, the outcome would be entirely different. Hence, there is a causal relationship between Mary striking the match and the match being lit (under the right background conditions).
This should be distinguished from a mere correlation. What we need here is a principled way of distinguishing a causal relationship from a correlation. Sometimes holding all the confounding or background variables steady can become confusing, and which variable is the genuine cause and which is merely a background condition can become murky. To solve this problem, we bring back our notion of the difference-maker – a mere background variable won’t (all other variables remaining equal) ever make the difference to an outcome occurring.
So, to establish that Islam is a cause of increased violence and make sure it’s not just a correlation, let’s formalise the argument:
Religious Belief (RB) causes Violence (V) if and only if there are background circumstances B such that if some intervention that changes the value of RB (and no other variable) were to occur in B, then V would change.
If Islamic beliefs (or any kind of religious belief) cause violence, then when the value of RB changes, there should be a concurrent change in V. Islamic, more violence. Not Islamic, less violence. Pretty straightforward, and something biologists, sociologists, statisticians, psychologists and other scientists use as their standard account of causation.
The first test of these claims is to see whether religion (taking Islam as my exemplary case, since it is Sam’s target too) has this kind of systematic difference-making association with terrorism. According to the data analysed by Robert Pape (2005):
“I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003—315 attacks in all…the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group...who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.” (Pape 2005 pg. 2-3).
This is a bit of an early stumbling block. If a phenomenon occurs in the absence of a particular variable’s manipulation, it suggests that this variable is not the difference-maker for that phenomenon. We’ve intervened on RB, turning it off. The Tamil Tigers don’t have an Islamic (or even religious) belief motivating them, yet V holds steady. On the difference-making view of causation, it’s looking unlikely that RB causes V. At the very least we need further investigation.
In response to this (kind of obvious) complication, Sam makes a move to rule out all other potential causal variables like “political or economic grievances”:
“Anyone who imagines that terrestrial concerns account for Muslim terrorism must answer questions of the following sort: Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? … Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam.”
“Our enemies—as witnessed by their astonishing willingness to slaughter themselves—are not principally motivated by political or economic grievances. How many more architects and electrical engineers must fly planes into buildings before we realize that the problem of Muslim extremism is not merely a matter of education? How many more middle-class British citizens must blow themselves up along with scores of noncombatants before we acknowledge that Muslim terrorism is not matter of poverty or political oppression?” vi
The claim is apparently that by showing an example of a political and economic grievance that is not associated with violence, he has demonstrated that political and economic grievances cannot possibly be the cause of religious violence. This does not follow. Observing a case where Mary striking a match doesn’t light the match does not prove that matches are never lit by being struck. This is a non-starter of an argument, but it’s all Sam ever offers (feel free to let me know if I’ve missed his knock-down argument somewhere).
Harris also shoots himself in the foot with the Buddhist example. He admits that by the standards he himself sets up (a correlation between religious belief and violence), Buddhism is a cause of violence much like Islam. To cover himself and provide some way of differentiating Islam and Buddhism, Harris confabulates some defensive claims:
“Now, the truth is it was never pure Zen. It was Zen mixed with Shinto mixed with a kind of Japanese nationalism and war ethic. So it was a weird brew, but it was not at all a surprise that certain Zen teachings, which do not emphasize compassion to the degree that most Buddhist teachings do, could be spun into this sort of martial ethic.” vii
It was “never pure Zen”. That’s a No True Scotsman if I ever saw one. When Buddhism is reasonably accused of association with violence in the same way Harris accuses Islam, he suddenly locates mitigating circumstances for the Buddhists that make other things – Shintoism, being Japanese or something – the real cause.
Doesn’t this necessarily raise the question: couldn’t this be the case then for Islam, or Christianity, or any other religion? After all, it’s not pure Islam, it’s Islam mixed with Shi’a doctrine, or it’s Islam mixed with political directives driven by US imperialism, and so on. I think this problem reveals either an intellectual dishonesty – Sam is willing to flagrantly make up excuses for Buddhism so that his chosen target of Islam continues to look bad while his favoured religion keeps looking good – or worse, an inflexible bias against Islam that is not susceptible to evidence to the contrary.
The same move is used by Sam when considering that the Tamil Tigers, a national liberation movement with an explicitly secular position were pioneers in developing suicide bombing as a tactic. Harris claims:
“…it is misleading to describe the Tamil Tigers as ‘secular’ … While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death. The cult of martyr-worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause.” viii
This seems like a bizarre claim given the historical facts. The Tamil Tigers terrorist group (the LTTE) and their sometime supporters the DMK and the DK, were and are all explicitly anti-Hindu, pro-Tamil, pro-secular political groups that grew out of the anti-caste system Dravidian movement. So, accusing them of being secret Hindus smacks of inventing evidence to suit the argument – a problem I address in greater detail, with more examples from Sam’s writing, later in this section.
At this point it seems like no amount of contrary evidence will convince Harris that his hypothesis is not well-founded, that RB does not (on the basis of the evidence he has presented) cause V, that religion is not the difference-maker for terrorism. If his claim is that certain religions (Islam for instance) cause suicide bombing, then it’s flatly wrong by the evidence he himself has provided. Buddhists, who Sam claims don’t have a doctrinal position on suicide bombing, crashed Zeros full of explosives into American aircraft carriers. Tamil Tigers set off trucks and vests in the middle of crowds – under an explicitly secular banner.
I find it hard to believe that anyone could be satisfied by Sam’s arguments here. Confronted with the fact that his favoured religion Zen Buddhism has similar associations to suicide bombing historically to Islam, he briefly confabulates and asserts that all the times Buddhists did a suicide bombing it wasn’t real Buddhism, and hence not evidence that Buddhism causes suicide bombing. On the other hand, every time a Buddhist doesn’t do a suicide bombing, it is definitely real Buddhism. And thereby evidence that it doesn’t cause suicide bombing. This is the most blatant case of selecting on the dependent variable to make an unreasonable case that you will find in the wild.
Robert Pape’s take on the inconsistent evidence is, in interventionist terms, more enlightening, pointing out that a good causal explanation ought to explain the observed phenomenon, not a simplified or limited version of that phenomenon:
“…psychological explanations cannot explain why suicide terrorism occurs only in certain societies and at certain times. While suicide rates vary from one society to another, they do not vary enough to explain why the overwhelming majority of societies—even those experiencing political violence—exhibit no suicide terrorism but a handful of societies have experienced dozens of attacks each. This requires a political or social explanation. Similarly, while the supply of suicidal individuals may vary somewhat over time, psychological explanations cannot account for why over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks occur in organized campaigns that are concentrated in time.” (Pape 2005, pg. 27).
Yet the approach Sam takes when confronted with compelling evidence that doesn’t agree with his hypothesis smacks of a reliance on a hypothesis that is not falsifiable – a bit of a no-no when making empirical claims about the world:
“…if a theory is incompatible with possible empirical observations it is scientific; conversely, a theory which is compatible with all such observations, either because…it has been modified solely to accommodate such observations, or because…it is consistent with all possible observations, is unscientific.” (Thornton 2016).
There may be a case where religion is the genuine cause of violence. And I think we can all agree that the third premise: Now much like Sam I’d be happy to agree that our third premise:
Religious believers do in fact perform these particular acts of violence.
…is not particularly controversial – people with religious beliefs can be violent, they can do suicide bombings. But this should not be conflated with the claim that religion is the cause of this violence. Unfortunately for those who would like to demonstrate this claim, none of the examples used by Harris make this case with any rigor. If anything, they make the alternatives more plausible.
2.2. Not Providing Any Evidence (Or, It’s Just Obvious!)
Another habit of Sam Harris’ argument on behalf of New Atheism is his predilection for not bothering to evidence any of the claims he makes. This is the prime example of what can only be described as consistently poor scholarship – Sam throws massive claims around without giving the reader any reason to think that this is true, unless they are wowed by the presentation.
For instance, my reading of Harris’ dialogue with Maajid Nawaz “Islam & the Future of Tolerance” yielded 79 distinct claims made by Harris about religion, religious belief and the history of religion over the course of the text. Of those claims, only 3 were supported by an argument, or any evidence (and my standards were bottom of the barrel low – any kind of reasoning, however faulty; any kind of evidence, even if it wasn’t verifiable or even true). Have a few examples:
“In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value—values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings—comes from the past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it.” (pg. 65).
“So when you say that no religion is intrinsically peaceful or warlike, and that every scripture must be interpreted, I think you run into problems, because many of these texts aren’t all that elastic. They aren’t susceptible to just any interpretation, and they commit their adherents to specific beliefs and practices.” (pg. 68).
“To the contrary, one can say that under Islam, the central message is that women are second-class citizens and the property of the men in their lives.” (pg. 68).
“…so many moderate Muslims believe that “Islamophobia” is a bigger problem than literalist Islam is.” (pg. 71).
“I know that modern Islamism learned a trick or two from European fascism…” (pg. 99).
“But the Crusades were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad (whether the crusaders were aware of the Islamic doctrine or not). They were a reaction to Muslim incursions in Europe, the persecution of Eastern Christians, and the desecration of Christian holy sites.” (pg. 99).
“Likewise, the vaunted peace of Andalusia is largely a fairy tale, first presented in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli, and others who romanticized Muslim civilization at its height.” (pg. 100).
“But as you know, Muslims, too, practiced slavery in Africa, and Western slavers appear to have learned a good deal from them. ” (pg. 101).
“…whatever other historical and political factors are involved, the reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as is the resurrection of Jesus under Christianity.” (pg. 101).
“many Muslims feel a reflexive (and religiously mandated) solidarity with other Muslims, no matter how barbaric their commitments, simply because they happen to be Muslim.” (pg. 114).
You can take a look yourself at the original text and verify that none of these claims are rescued by their context. They are plopped out onto the page without anything to back them up – they are simply to be accepted by the reader. Some might be true (I personally doubt most of them), but who would know based on this extremely limited exposition? For a supposed public intellectual this is pretty embarrassing. I can’t think of an actual, real philosopher who would be so lax with their claims, especially given that the opportunity to footnote the dialogue with further evidence or argument was an option available to Harris (and used a few times by himself and Nawaz).
The trend extends beyond just this dialogue into Sam’s broader corpus of written work. Take for instance this particularly galling example, returning to the topic of Buddhist terrorism:
“This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim.” ix
How does Sam know this already? Has he figured out some ingenious research paradigm and conducted experiments that demonstrate Muslims don’t need to “work as hard” to justify suicide bombing? Again, Sam doesn’t bother evidencing a claim. We must take it on faith that it is indeed harder to justify terrorism as a Buddhist and accept this as a pillar of his argument.
The evolution of this technique is Sam’s occasional claim that he doesn’t need to provide evidence for what he says: his claims are just so obvious that he doesn’t need to show that they’re actually true.
Harris often simply argues that it’s plainly obvious that religion is the cause of behaviour, intentionally omitting any evidence for the claim:
“The reality, however, is that if the doctrine of Islam were different, the beliefs of devout Muslims would be different, and this difference would have consequences at the level of their behavior. If the Koran contained a verse which read, "By all means, depict the Prophet in caricature to the best of your abilities, for this pleaseth Allah", there wouldn't have been a cartoon controversy. Can I prove this counterfactual? Not quite. Do I really need to?”x
In this case, a lack of evidence is treated as indicative of the strength of his argument – the point is so obvious that he doesn’t even need to provide any evidence. For someone who claims to detest religion in most of its forms, Sam operates like a good old-fashioned medieval scholastic defending God’s existence – it’s a given that requires no argument. Similarly:
“Beliefs matter. It’s amazing that the point needs to even be made—but it does, again and again.” (Harris & Nawaz 2015, pg. 126).
The point is so obvious, you should just believe it! Beliefs matter – and I’m not going to tell you why or how I know this. This is easily his weakest style of argument, but also one that Harris loves to repeat frequently and publicly (whenever you hear the “it’s just obvious!” argument in philosophy, translate this mentally into “I can’t make the argument, or can’t be bothered to make the argument”).
My suspicion is that while Sam’s claims about religion are often in line with some people’s intuitions, making them work as actual, rigorous arguments ends up being unworkable – much easier to just ignore that problem, then.
2.3. Face Value Statements of Motive (When It Suits Him)
Another of the arguments levelled by Sam Harris is this: we need only listen to what extremists say about their own motives in order to figure out that religion, particularly Islam, is the cause of their behaviour. Surely this can prove that our premise, that religion causes suicide bombing, is true! There’s a rhetorically potent but not particularly philosophically strong challenge in here – if we can’t accept professions of religious motivation by violent extremists, then what standard of evidence will we accept? Will the lunatic regressive cultural-Marxist fringe not permit even people’s own words to incriminate Islam? Harris states the position succinctly:
“I believe we should take declarations of this kind at face value—and understand that those who think this way pose a genuine danger to civilization.” (Harris & Nawaz 2015, pg. 86).
There are a few reasons to be critical of this approach. The first is that Harris frequently makes this claim about terrorists and Islam, but never seems to be able to find concrete instances of it. The second, and more importantly, is that despite Harris’ constant assertions that Jihadists or terrorists generally cite Islam as their rationale, the available evidence doesn’t support the claim that this is as consistent as Harris would like. For instance, Harris-nemesis Scott Atran cites his data suggesting much more earthly motives:
“In 2005, our research group… a random survey of 1,250 Palestinians from 120 locales in the West Bank and Gaza. We found that around 80 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings and believe that “Islam allows a bombing attack…where the bomber kills himself with the aim of killing his enemies.”
…But our research also clearly demonstrated that Palestinian support for suicide bombing is unrelated to a belief in the immutability of the conflict between Jews and Muslims, or some essential or inherent quality of Jews or Israelis…
…What does predict a belief that Islam sanctions martyrs is a perceived sense of injustice. For example, we asked participants to choose between two reasons why it’s socially and religiously permissible to kill other people: because of what other people had done, or because of the contrary beliefs and religion of other people. Participants overwhelmingly believed the former, but this was slightly stronger for those that believed Islam sanctioned suicide bombers than for those who did not.” (Atran 2010, pg. 359-360).
So far from showing that a pre-existing religiously motivated belief that infidels deserve to be suicide bombed, Atran’s data shows a relationship between people’s belief that suicide bombing is acceptable and their feeling of having been wronged (in purely concrete, non-religious grounds) and (surprisingly) that these earthly motives were stronger amongst those who believed that Islam is consistent with suicide bombing. Similar sentiments are reported by the researcher Lydia Wilson when interviewing captured Islamists:
“More pertinent than Islamic theology is that there are other, much more convincing, explanations as to why they’ve fought for the side they did. At the end of the interview with the first prisoner we ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” For the first time since he came into the room he smiles—in surprise—and finally tells us what really motivated him, without any prompting. He knows there is an American in the room, and can perhaps guess, from his demeanor and his questions, that this American is ex-military, and directs his “question,” in the form of an enraged statement, straight at him. “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started…
This whole experience has been very familiar indeed to Doug Stone, the American general on the receiving end of this diatribe. “He fits the absolutely typical profile,” Stone said afterward. “The average age of all the prisoners in Iraq when I was here was 27; they were married; they had two children; had got to sixth to eighth grade. He has exactly the same profile as 80 percent of the prisoners then…and his number-one complaint about the security and against all American forces was the exact same complaint from every single detainee.” xi
You might say at this point: who the fuck are Scott Atran and Lydia Wilson to say that they know Islamic terrorists don’t have religious motives, just because of their answers on a survey or verbal reports? To which I say: sure. Just because people push a certain narrative doesn’t mean that this narrative is necessarily true, nor that it accurately reports their motives (which may be opaque even to them). Now turn that thought back in the direction of Sam Harris himself. How is that he can decide that certain utterances by a few individuals are damning proof of belief and motive? Is his method more rigorous than Scott Atran’s? Has he collected contrary data? (In case you haven’t noticed the trend yet, no, he hasn’t to my knowledge).
Further, consider that the only necessary refutation of Harris’ case here is the presentation of evidence that is contrary to his. That’s all. Harris’ entire case rests on the fact that allegedly (let’s assume he’s correct despite the lack of evidence he presents, in typical fashion) terrorists state that Islam caused their terrorism, and we should take this at face value. So if I present evidence that a person stated that something else (political or economic factors) caused their terrorism, then we should also take that at face value. Like the reports taken by Atran and Wilson. Unless Sam has some reason why one utterance should be taken at face value, and the other shouldn’t, then Sam’s argument is now already on the rocks.
Harris is guilty of exactly of what he accuses his opponents of. When violence is self-attributed to Islam, Harris thinks it should be taken at face value. However, when Muslim people deny or give responses contrary to the belief that Islam was their motivation, Harris excuses this problem with his account like so:
“…one of the problems we have is that many Muslims, for understandable reasons and some for really deplorable reasons, are playing hide the ball with the articles of faith, and are eager to have the conversations of the sort you have had from a very cynical and manipulative perspective.” xii
Again, this begins to resemble the archetype of an unfalsifiable argument. When Muslims do attribute their violence or violent attitudes to Islam, Sam insists it should be taken at face value, and as evidence for his claim that religion (in this case Islam) causes this violence. When the reverse happens, and some Muslim attributes their violence to something else (like foreign intervention), we shouldn’t take them at face value at all – they must be concealing their true beliefs. In the end, Sam counts everything as proving his point. Every possible piece of documentary evidence supports his hypothesis.
Harris takes people at face value when it suits him (though he generally doesn’t bother to actually quote them or find their statements). The hypothetical loudmouth jihadi should be taken at face value. Sometimes a statement isn’t even needed – we can simply read their intentions into their actions. However, when people cite alterative reasons for their violence, this is dismissed as them playing “hide the ball” in Sam’s words, intentionally misleading us as to their true intentions. The Muslims just can’t win!
2.4. Making Up Examples (and the Art of Muslim Whispering)
Something which struck me while researching this article is the sheer number of made up examples and empirical claims that Harris uses – it’s a genuine rarity that he ever appeals to some real-life example or piece of evidence that makes his case. I’ve already discussed cases where he doesn’t use any evidence, but here I mean to target the cases where he appeals to evidence or fact that is evidently not something he could possibly know for sure, or just plainly made-up. Either out of laziness or inability to find appropriate evidence, Harris has a consistent tendency to use imagined or fictional examples that serve his arguments and deploy them in place of real examples. In fact, this is such a consistent flaw in his writing that just about every article on Islam he has written has multiple instances of it. I genuinely challenge anyone to find some substantiation for the specific examples he’s talking about in the cases I list in this section. I’d be relieved to know that Harris’ scholarship isn’t as abysmal as it seems.
To start things off, in his recent dialogue with Maajid Nawaz, Sam claims:
“The belief that a life of eternal pleasure awaits martyrs after death explains why certain people can honestly chant, “We love death more than the infidels love life.” Again, you and I both know that these people aren’t bluffing. They truly believe in martyrdom—as evidenced by the fact that they regularly sacrifice their lives, or watch their children do so, without a qualm.” (Harris & Nawaz 2015, pg. 84).
My first question is: who holds these beliefs? Sam is claiming that there is an actual group of people who say these words, and regularly sacrifice themselves and their children “without a qualm”. Does Sam have documentary evidence of these individuals? Of who believes and “can honestly chant” those words? Any half-decent scholar would go out and find an uncontroversial example of exactly the scenario they are describing instead of vaguely gesturing. Maybe someone does think and say this stuff. But as far as I can tell, these chants exist within Sam’s mind only.
Another prime example comes from one of Sam’s disagreements with Scott Atran over the “72 virgins” motive for carrying out terrorism. Sam asserts that, contra Atran’s findings, many terrorists are motivated by just this very spiritual reward:
“The first thing to point out is that such cases do exist, "errant" or not.” xiii
That’s literally the extent of Sam’s response to Atran argument-wise. Not a single counter-example. Not a word of dispute over the qualitative data Atran has collected in the field (which wouldn’t be a tough argument to make). He simply asserts that these cases exist, without showing that they do.
The thing about Harris’ approach here is that it cultivates the appearance, or the presentation of, being rational without actually being rational. The sentence is neat, well-structured, like the rest of the article. It is confident. But behind this front, it is basically hollow. It is an assertion of an empirical fact without any evidence to back it up.
Scott Atran’s claim, based on evidence compiled by interviewing Islamic terrorists in the field, is deftly parried by Harris’ assertion from authority (his own I suppose) that Atran’s evidence is just wrong. Alright. Harris continues:
“What Atran ignores in his interpretation is the widespread Muslim belief that martyrs go straight to Paradise and secure a place for their nearest and dearest there. In light of such religious ideas, solidarity within a community takes on another dimension. And phrases like "God will love you just the same" have a meaning that is worth unpacking. What is God's love good for? It is good for escaping the fires of hell and reaping an eternity of happiness after death.” xiv
Sam’s follow-up is just the same. Donning the mantle of the Muslim Whisperer, Sam Harris somehow knows what the “widespread Muslim belief” about martyrs is – he invents evidence out of thin air. Does he cite surveys, interviews, some evidence for this sweeping claim? No. We are expected to believe that Harris’ evidence represents the world truly on faith alone.
“The terrible truth is that millions (probably hundreds of millions, if not billions) of religious people read scripture as though it were an infallible guide to understanding reality and how to live within it.” xv
Again, something we just need to take on faith from Sam. How does he know what millions, or billions of Muslims privately believe? What is the basis for this “truth”? At this point I am not even making the case that Sam is wrong. That would suggest there was a serious argument to answer in this text. My question, if I could ask him would be: Is there no evidence out there that would support his claims, even a little bit? I find it hard to believe that there is no survey data, no documentary evidence of at least someone in the world claiming to believe this stuff – but you won’t hear about it from him. I have to conclude that Sam’s standards of scholarship are just that bad that even though evidence for his claims might exist, he isn’t bothered to find it and do the necessary exposition to make an actual argument. As a result, his arguments all fail miserably.
More insidiously Sam leverages this same technique as a blanket defence of everything his seemingly favoured people, the Israelis, do to the Palestinians. Despite the similarly violent behaviours of the two groups, he attributes utterly opposite motives. Israelis, by Sam’s own admission, kill and injure thousands of Palestinians by shooting, bombing, burning, torture and mass imprisonment, to say nothing of the indirect violence of surveillance, forced privation and restriction of movement inflicted over long periods. Palestinians shoot and blow up Israelis and inflict regular misery by launching bombs and rockets at cities and towns inhabited by Israeli settlers. This is what Sam has to say about that situation:
“But we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.”
“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could…But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.” xvi
Somehow, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israelis don’t want to hurt Palestinians, just like we have “every reason to believe” that the Palestinians would kill every Israeli if possible. Sam’s rock-solid evidence is based on suppositions about other people’s beliefs based on…nothing. Even when rewriting the transcript to respond to critics and including notes, he did not deign to bulk up these claims at all. His evidence remains based on his suppositions. To present a contrary view regarding the Israeli benevolence towards Palestinians that is based on some actual evidence, let us bear in mind that in 2014 the Israeli Defence Force indiscriminately fired upwards of 30,00 heavy artillery shells into Gaza, one of (if not the) most densely populated places in the world. xvii xix xx Droves of ordinary Israelis turned up on the heights overlooking Gaza to picnic and enjoy watching the death and maiming of Palestinian people during the IDF’s incursion into Gaza (bearing in mind that 20 children were killed during this attack to the distant applause of those Israelis). xviii This does not strike me as the behaviour people who wish no harm on the Palestinians, and only kill them out of hateful necessity.
Despite this, Sam asserts, we should be utterly confident that the Israelis are morally superior to Palestinians here because if they wanted the Palestinians dead, they could kill them all. Meanwhile the Palestinians (he again knows somehow with total confidence) would kill every Israeli if they could. The problem here is again the base assertion of either side’s true motives that Sam somehow knows, despite having totally invented this “evidence”.
As an aside, and to go one better, let’s run this argument through a different historical lens:
The occupying Nazis are morally superior to the French because if they wanted the French dead, they could kill them all. Meanwhile the French would kill every Nazi occupier if they could.
Hooray for the Nazis! If we run Sam’s argument in other situations, we find that any more powerful force or nation is necessarily in the moral right, so long as they don’t kill every single member of their subjugated enemy.
Both parties in my example are engaged in violence but regardless the Nazis are morally worse (I hope you agree), and the French are morally justified in their violence for broader historical reasons that require a bit of context. Whatever the French believe about Nazis, and whatever the Nazis believe about the French, there is a certain context determining moral considerations. The Nazis have done terrible things and occupied the French, and they are subjugating and exploiting them. So clearly, we would like to support the French here, to consider their violence to be motivated by genuine grievances of a historical and concrete nature, with the concrete aim of removing the Nazi occupiers. We don’t need to read back through French history to locate the germ of their violent ideology in order to figure out why French people were killing Nazis whenever possible.
I would imagine that Sam would similarly like to consider violence conducted by the French as part of their resistance against the Nazis to be morally justified due to the actions of their occupiers. But Sam is simply deploying the Muslim Whispering technique in order to preserve the moral standing of the Israelis – it is an argument made in totally bad faith to protect the one example that he seems to think stands outside usual considerations of right and wrong.
But now Sam graduates from offering a bad argument based on false claims about the contents of other people’s minds and facts he doesn’t know, into full-blown making-shit-up:
“The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.” xxi
These claims in particular are made not only without a shred of evidence to support them. The claim that Palestinians use human shields is not supported by any evidence. xxii Nor is there concrete evidence that Hamas uses children or anyone else as human shields. On the other hand, there is abundant and concrete evidence (to which Israel publicly admits) of at least 1200 incidents of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields, including children (they wouldn’t be the first occupiers to do so – the practice was widespread amongst British soldiers in Northern Ireland in the 80’s.) There is also evidence that the Israelis continue to use human shields. xxiii
Of course, it seems like Sam’s intuitions about people’s beliefs have an evidential force greater than that of actual evidence. Though I do end up agreeing with Sam that “everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields” …but arriving at a very different conclusion.
Let’s return to the original premise being targeted in this section:
These particular acts of violence are caused by the religious beliefs held by religious believers.
This is the linchpin of the ultimate conclusion that Islam causes terrorism. But when testing religious beliefs as a cause using the notion of a difference-maker, it doesn’t seem like a good candidate cause for violence, in this case suicide bombing. In any case, Harris consistently provides no evidence to back this causal claim, instead simply presenting unsupported claims as fact. When challenged, his subsequent attempts to shore up his position include dismissing all counterexamples as No True Scotsmen and fabricating his own counter-examples out of whole cloth.
3. Disassembling the New Atheist Case
In this section, I want to do two things: first, to continue taking apart the premises of the New Atheist argument, and briefly present a more positive case for the causes of religious violence and push back on the New Atheist doctrine more generally at the same time. First, I take a look at developments in the science and philosophy of religious belief and its relationship to behaviour. Second, I use these findings to discuss what the actual difference-maker for religious violence might be. I conclude with a challenge to the New Atheist project more broadly which I argue lacks a coherent or consistent thesis.
3.1. The Science & Philosophy of Religious Belief
“In 2007, a young earth creationist named Marcus Ross, received his PhD in Geoscience at the University of Rhode Island, having written about the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, despite ‘‘believing’’ that the earth is younger than 10,000 years old. Importantly, his Baptist credences did not govern the scientific hypotheses in his dissertation, otherwise he could not have finished.” (Van Leeuwen 2014, pg. 21).
Common-sense would tell us that the case of Marcus Ross is either impossible, or some kind of particularly twisted and intellectually schizoid individual. How can someone simultaneously believe that the world is fewer than 10,000 years old, and also at least 65 million years old? The religious “belief” and the factual belief directly clash in a way that would seem to brook no coexistence: it’s one or the other. Either dinosaurs lived alongside cavemen, or they didn’t.
But common sense isn’t always the be all (sorry Rationals). Religious beliefs, like Marcus Ross’ belief that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, often involve this kind of apparent cognitive dissonance. Yet there doesn’t always seem to be much inner conflict. Ross successfully completed his PhD, so we can assume his ability to perform his research is a scholarly and rational manner was not being ruined by his concurrent religious belief that geoscience is wrong about the age of the world. It seems that at least in this case, facts and religion pass like ships in the night, barely encountering one another. In fact, a growing body of scientific and philosophical literature has emerged painting a picture that makes Marcus Ross look pretty typical.
Van Leeuwen (2014) makes the even stronger claim that religious beliefs do not function as beliefs in the traditional sense. When we talk about religious belief, the assumption is that we are taking about belief in the analytical philosophy of mind sense. That is, a basic bit of propositional content which should inform behaviour (though while this is the received view in the field historically, it’s not necessarily a view of belief contemporary philosophers of mind would endorse unreservedly).
What Van Leeuwen argues is that, on the basis of the extensive research on religious belief and behaviour, we must conclude that religious belief is not really belief in the sense given above. He uses the term religious credence instead and brackets it away with other kinds of “belief” that fail to operate like canonical belief like imaginings, play, and so on.
“Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. And when we talk about differences in “beliefs,” we tend to focus on differences in contents, without considering the possibility that we are lumping distinct attitudes under this one word. But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. Just as the word “jade” refers to two different substances from the standpoint of modern chemistry, “belief,” we will see, refers to at least two different kinds of attitude from the standpoint of a well-developed, empirically informed theory of cognitive attitudes.” (Van Leeuwen 2014 pg. 1)
The first part of his argument is the claim that religious credence only guides behaviour within certain limited ritual contexts. A standard belief should not operate this way – for instance my knowledge that water quenches thirst should hold under all circumstances, and I won’t suddenly act as though it doesn’t. Yet he claims that religious beliefs are hardly rigidly applied, but rather are only applied selectively within narrow situations. If this is the case, it puts pressure on our second premise:
These religious texts and religious beliefs encourage particular acts of violence.
Since religious teachings would neither count as the sort of general behaviour-guiding beliefs Van Leeuwen describes above, nor would they encourage violence out in the world at large. Van Leeuwen surveys the evidence:
“Return to Astuti and Harris (2008)…In their first study, they supplied some of the Vezo with a religious-ritual narrative and asked about the physical and psychological properties of deceased ancestors. Could they see? Could they think? And so on. They asked others the same questions about a corpse described in a naturalistic way. Astuti and Harris found subjects were more likely to attribute psychological properties to the deceased in the ritual narrative setting than in the naturalistic setting. Furthermore, this study is a sequel to Harris & Giménez (2005), which demonstrates the same toggling effect among Spanish children. Recall that Astuti and Harris write, ‘‘In other contexts, death is represented as total annihilation...’’ (Van Leeuwen 2014, pg.
In short, while religious credence holds that the dead live on as spirits that can observe the living, this belief (and its effects on behaviour) appear to toggle on and off depending on context. Within the ritual context, the religious credence dictates behaviour – outside that context, it no longer does. Van Leeuwen summarises the apparent contradiction:
“RELGIOUS CREDENCE: the ancestor can see.
FACTUAL BELIEF: the ancestor is a lifeless corpse.” (Van Leeuwen 2014, pg. 18).
The second way that religious credence differs from factual belief is its malleability. Religious credence is susceptible to modification if circumstances require it:
“…Boyer (2001) gives examples that suggest people elaborate inventively on religious ‘‘beliefs’’ they hold. He mentions how the details of Greek exotiká (demons or devil incarnations) change over time (82); how local Indian practitioners of Hinduism invent deities not described in official Hindu texts (282–3); and how Kwaio religious specialists make things up on the fly about the ancestors they revere, ‘‘improvising all sorts of new details about these agents’’ (302). Examples can be multiplied. With other ‘‘beliefs,’’ however, people are far less inventive. I believe, in a mundane way, there are almonds in my cupboard and not cashews; nor do I invent ‘‘beliefs’’ that the almonds are roasted or that there are cashews, though I may imagine such things. So some ‘‘beliefs’’ generate other ‘‘beliefs’’ of their kind by creative processes; others do not.” (Van Leeuwen 2014, pg. 2).
I am also reminded of the Catholic church’s declaration in 2007 that the existence of Limbo had been abolished – a change to belief made on the basis, according to the church itself, on the distastefulness of thinking that babies don’t go to heaven:
“The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation…” xxiv
Based not on the religious texts, but on a desire to interpret the text a certain way, the church can radically alter their view of the afterlife. If religious credence is malleable then it casts doubt on the New Atheist case that religious texts or long-standing beliefs can be held responsible for violence. For instance, if we attribute religion as the cause of their violent behaviour, this is not solid evidence that religion and its texts are responsible. Here I am targeting our first premise:
Religious beliefs are conveyed to believers by religious texts.
Sam himself (surprisingly) agrees that religious credence is malleable:
“I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. ” xxv
So, Sam entirely agrees that religious beliefs can be malleable on the basis of this anecdote, and also agrees that they can have little to no influence on behaviour, since people or groups can simply reinterpret their faith to suit their needs. Jews could decide that God supports violence and settlement in Palestine, even though their texts could suggest something different. Muslims may imagine a God that demands decency and compassion in good times, but one that demands violence in worse circumstances – the difference-maker is the material need rather than the content of the text or belief. But when a virtually identical claim about the content of religious beliefs in general (and thus in a manner damning to his argument) is made by Scott Atran, Harris is livid:
“As to matters of real substance, Atran makes insupportable claims about religion as though they were self-evident: like "religious beliefs are not false in the usual sense of failing to meet truth conditions"; they are, rather, like "poetic metaphors" which are "literally senseless. " How many devout Christians or Muslims would recognize their own faith in this neutered creed? What is "literally senseless" about the claim that human beings were created in their present forms by God (and that evolution is, therefore, a fiction)? What is "literally senseless" about the proposition that an eternity in a fiery hell awaits nonbelievers after death?" xxvi
The difference is night and day, and also brazenly inconsistent. Sam Harris can publicly endorse the view that religious belief can be malleable and do little to inform behaviour – but on the condition that this only applies to Jews for some reason. Why only Jews? Why not Muslims, or Christians, or whatever other religion? Consider that Van Leeuwen’s paper, and the scientific research he draws on, argues convincingly that this is a widespread feature cross-culturally and spanning various religions. But when the identical conclusion is reached by scientists like Scott Atran and philosophers like Van Leeuwen it is treated with contempt by Sam, because it extends this (on the basis of actual research and philosophical argument, not just base assertion) to religion in general, not just Jews. I suspect because it would ruin his broader claims about Islam and violence to concede the point.
Many of Harris’ fans are swayed by the idea that he is not only an excellent philosopher who rarely strays from extremely high standards of rational discourse, but that he also represents a broader movement towards his followers becoming more “rational” themselves. I hope aside from the main content of this article, that I have also shown that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sam Harris is an expert at the presentation side of his craft – he gives the impression through confidence in tone, but behind it is more or less nothing concrete, in terms of his capacity to make and sustain arguments.
3.2. What is the Difference-Maker?
Earlier I discussed the idea of religion as a difference-maker to violence, in particular suicide bombing, and the inadequacy of religion (specifically Islam) as a potential cause of violence. If not Islam, then what is a plausible difference-maker for suicide bombing? Is there some variable which consistently manipulates the presence of suicide bombing (given a set of appropriate background conditions)? Some attempts have been made to find one. In his exhaustive study of every suicide attack in the last 30 years, Robert Pape claims:
“What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon and the West Bank in the 80s and 90s, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and up through the Paris suicide attacks we’ve just experienced in the last days, military intervention—and specifically when the military intervention is occupying territory—that’s what prompts suicide terrorism more than anything else.” xxvii
That seems to be getting closer to a genuine causal claim, and one our interventionist account of causes could accommodate better. Pape’s claims and his broader hypothesis about suicide bombing seem to handle more of the details as well. For instance, if suicide bombing is simply motivated by and directed against the presence of infidels (as Harris consistently argues), then how can we explain that attacks are not conducted at random (as this hypothesis would imply) but against strategically useful targets? Pape’s account seems to handle this kind of nuance much better. It includes more details that seem to accurately describe and predict suicide bombing better than the vague claim that suicide bombing is caused by Islam. Though not complete by any means, it is an infinitely more serious and robust attempt at explaining suicide bombing.
3.3. New Atheists Lack a Thesis
So far, I have tried to put pressure on several premises of the New Atheist argument as represented by Sam Harris – that religious texts pass on certain beliefs, that these beliefs encourage violence, that believers then go on to be violent, with religion as the cause of this violence - making religion and its texts the cause of violence. Having poked open some of the numerous weak points in this argument, I want to suggest that the entire project of New Atheism isn’t just flawed – it is headless, lacking a real direction. The broader case I want to make here is that the New Atheist school of thought lacks a serious or rigorously thought out thesis about religion and violence, relying on un-naturalistic and outdated assumptions.
Regarding the lack of a clear thesis, the New Atheist approach does not seem clear on where to derive its framework or what it needs to demonstrate to make its case. While I’ve listed an argument above based on Sam Harris’ writing, it is an (I think fair) interpretation dredged out of the oblique, often shifting claims made across dozens of scattered articles and books. For a supposedly serious philosophical and social project, there is no explicit and clearly-stated argument. An actual, bona fide thesis is notably lacking from the work of any of the major New Atheist writers (even Dennett, the philosophically competent one). New Atheism does not have a credible thesis.
While sloppy presentation and an unclear thesis might just be the signs of well-meaning amateurs at work, New Atheism uses up any potential mulligans by consistently ignoring and denying scholarly work that undermines its vague premises.
For instance, as Van Leeuwen said in the earlier quote, there is a default set of assumptions about belief and behaviour being peddled here, but not openly acknowledged. The deepest undergirding assumption propping up New Atheism is a persistent (but not very naturalistic or scientific) assertion that “belief” is more than just a folk psychological concept, but a real bona fide explanation, in the raw, for people’s behaviour. Assuming that people’s behaviour must be guided by contentful beliefs means that an internal mental state like “Infidels should be killed” programs the religious to be murderous. They evaluate their perceptions on the basis of these straightforward propositions – hence the explanation for world events comes down to an analysis, free of context, of these mental states.
But as Van Leeuwen showed (and as critics like Levy (2017) agree) the story there is not so simple. Beliefs are not so simple either. Whether we update our ontology of beliefs to include new subcategories with different properties (like Van Leeuwen), modify our understanding of beliefs (like Levy) or, like many in contemporary philosophy of mind, cognitive science and psychology simply abandon the notion in favour of more naturalistic understandings of human behaviour, the kind of received view about beliefs and behaviour requires adjustment. It is certainly not a rock-solid basis for understanding masses of people’s behaviour, since it is at best a crude and coarse-grained application of a fairly abstract and not particularly empirically valid concept, and at worst a crutch for a lack of a serious thesis about religious belief.
Meanwhile New Atheism’s “horsemen” seem to uncritically accept a very specific reading of philosophy in order to make their case, without ever defending or updating their position. New Atheists take the briefest of glances at 20th century analytic philosophy, formulating a received view of belief and behaviour, and run with it without looking back. Worse still, New Atheism openly rejects scholarship on these topics in order to preserve its core assumptions - untainted by developments in science and philosophy. As Scott Atran points out:
“Harris’s views on religion ignore the considerable progress in cognitive studies on the subject over the last two decades, which show that core religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content” xxviii
What appear to its advocates as self-evident truths – the Bible and the Quran make people believe things, these beliefs make them crazy and violent – actually rely on an indefensible set of assumptions that are way out of date with any serious discussion of mind, behaviour, and people’s motives for their actions. And Sam Harris is no exception. Earlier I showed how frequently he confabulates evidence, selectively interprets it and fails to even attempt serious argument or scholarship.
Fans of New Atheist dogma might say that this simple story about religious violence is just the most rational, the most logical. It’s rational, common sense, obvious, that the case for religious beliefs as the cause of violence is right. This tendency, which seems to be endemic amongst the loose movement of “Rationals”, conflates what is intuitive with what is actually rational. My claim feels right – therefore it must be a universal truth, a piece of uncontroversially correct common sense, and anyone who disagrees is wrong or lying. This not only characterises New Atheist sentiment generally, but also Harris specifically, who characterises one of those who questions his argument (Reza Aslan) like so:
“I have always considered Aslan a comical figure...On the topic of Islam, however, Aslan has begun to seem more sinister. He cannot possibly believe what he says, because nearly everything he says is a lie or a half-truth calibrated to mislead a liberal audience. If he claims something isn’t in the Koran, it probably is. I don’t know what his agenda is, beyond riding a jet stream of white guilt from interview to interview, but he is manipulating liberal biases for the purpose of shutting down conversation on important topics. Given what he surely knows about the contents of the Koran and the hadith, the state of public opinion in the Muslim world, the suffering of women and other disempowered groups, and the real-world effects of deeply held religious beliefs, I find his deception on these issues unconscionable.” xxix
Aslan is not just misguided for disagreeing with Sam’s intuitions: his work is an intentional and sinister “deception”, a series of lies designed to shut down discussion and protect…terrorists, I guess. On psychology researcher Scott Atran:
“… it is impossible to know whether one is in the presence of mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty. Atran’s belief —apparently shared by many people—is so at odds with what can be reasonably understood from the statements and actions of jihadists that it admits of no response.” xxx
Disagreement with Harris is either the result of being a lunatic, or a liar. And so are critics of Harris in the media, who question his position on Islam:
“Salon has become a cesspool of lies and moral confusion.” xxxi
“What most discussions of “Muslim extremism” miss, and what is obfuscated at every turn by commentators like Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, Karen Armstrong—and even Nicholas Kristof and Ben Affleck—is the power of specific religious ideas such as martyrdom, apostasy, blasphemy, prophecy, and honor.” xxxii
Sam’s intuitions about Islam are so obviously true, so intuitive (for him), so rational, that anyone who disagrees is surely being deceptive – they must be lying. Feel free to think about the world like this – but this is not serious thinking, it is not philosophy or whatever else Harris puts on the dust jacket of his books. It is uncritical, self-centred thinking closed off from any understanding of the world. It is a self-stunting programme of dogmatic and reactionary thought.
If Harris’ work and writing is anything to go by, then New Atheism lacks a contemporary, credible thesis. Gut instinct and intuition only go so far. Serious effort would need to be directed towards solid premises that aren’t easily undermined. So far, no such effort seems to be forthcoming, and intuitions about religion and belief are the best New Atheists have got. Meanwhile, scholars in science and philosophy continue to make real progress – or as Sam Harris sees it, lies, half-truths and deception.
I’ve tried to do two main things here: first, to show how New Atheism (of the Sam Harris variety) fails to demonstrate its core claims, as evidenced by its incapacity to provide anything like compelling evidence that religion is the difference maker in violence. Never has Harris shown, or even seriously attempted to show, any compelling argument or evidence that religion is the cause of violence. Their attempts are shown to be lacking in both an argumentative sense, and in reference to the empirical facts. Second, I’ve shown that New Atheists like Harris are in ignorance of the contemporary philosophy, science and history of belief, and the role of religion in human affairs, which complicate (if not outright deflate) their argument that religion and its texts cause violence. Moreover, the New Atheist position outright rejects scholarship in these areas in order to preserve itself. This leads to the conclusion that New Atheism lacks a coherent thesis or direction – it is peddling outdated theory and methods to suit intuitions rather than doing serious work.
Levy, N. (2017). Religious Beliefs are Factual Beliefs: Content Does Not Correlate With Context Sensitivity. Cognition, 161, pg. 109-116.
Pape, R. (2005). Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House.
Thornton, S. (2016). Karl Popper, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Van Leeuwen, N. (2014). Religious Creedence is Not Factual Belief. Cognition, 133, pg. 698‐715.