The false dichotomy of Islamophobia

Ottoman women

Ottoman women

by Massimo Pigliucci

A false dichotomy is a basic type of informal logical fallacy, consisting in framing an issue as if there were only two choices available, while in fact a range of nuanced positions may be on offer upon more careful reflection. While I have argued together with my colleagues Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri that often so-called logical fallacies turn out to be pretty reasonable heuristic strategies [1], there are nonetheless plenty of instances were they do identify truly bad reasoning. I have recently discussed one such case in reference to so-called trigger warnings in the context of college classes [2], but another one is arguably represented by the never ending “debate” about Islamophobia.

It is easy to find stark examples of people defending what appear to be two irreconcilable positions about how to view Islam in a post-9/11 world. For the sake of discussion, I will bypass pundits and other pseudo-intellectuals, and use instead two comedians as representative of the contrasting positions: Jon Stewart [3] and Bill Maher [4].

Before proceeding I must acknowledge that while I’ve liked Stewart for a long time, and followed with pleasure his evolution from being solely a comedian to a savvy social commentator during his run at the Daily Show [5], my appreciation of Maher has slid further and further. I used to like his brusque style back when he was doing his “Politically Incorrect” show, first on Comedy Central, then on ABC [6]. I was aghast when ABC (allegedly) let him go because he had dared to make the truly politically (but clearly correct) statement that the 9/11 hijackers could properly be labelled with a number of negative epithets, but that cowards wasn’t one of them. But then he made his Religulous movie [7], where he slid into crass new atheism-style “criticism” of religion, and finally came out as an anti-vaxxer all the while chastising some of his guests who were “skeptical” of climate change for being anti-science. At the same time, my conscious transition from a youthful predilection for assault rhetoric to a more nuanced (okay, middle aged), if still ironic, discourse also definitely marked a permanent shift in my taste from Maher (a good representative of the first style) to Stewart (an excellent example of the second one).

Back to Islam and Islamophobia. Maher has been repeatedly accused of the latter, while he defends himself as simply having the guts to be politically incorrect and openly criticize a religion that he considers the worst of a bad lot (since he rejects all religions anyway). Stewart, by contrast, has often had guests whose position is that there is nothing inherently wrong with Islam, and that the current undeniable penchant of a number of Islamic societies to harbor large reserves of potentially violent extremists has really nothing to do with religion and everything to do with external circumstances affecting those societies — circumstances that are usually traced back one way or the other to the aftermath of (Western) colonialism.

Notice that part of what interests me in this debate is the contrast on this topic among individuals who all consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, just like in the above mentioned case of trigger warnings. And again as in that other case, I am far less interested in the even more inflammatory, and intellectually much coarser, rhetoric coming from the extreme right, which will accordingly be left out of the current discussion.

Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general are particularly good ideas. In my mind they originate from a combination of false presuppositions (that there are higher beings of a supernatural kind) and a power grab by individuals (i.e., religious leaders) who sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not) end up exploiting the fears and hopes of the people that they are supposed to lead. Even so, I recognize that the religious instinct is pretty much universal among human beings, and not likely to go away any time soon, if ever. I also recognize that religions have done lots of good in the world throughout history, and that it isn’t at all clear whether a world without them would indeed be a better one, as a number of overconfident atheists keeps claiming [8].

What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that religion, any religion (including Islam) is a particularly good idea, but at the same time I also don’t believe that any religion (again, including Islam) is “the motherlode of bad ideas” [9].

But of course we are not talking about religions in general, we are talking post-9/11 Islam. What are we to make of it? While the statistics on international terrorism are complex and can be read in a number of ways [10], there is little doubt even in the mind of sympathetic commentators like CNN’s Fared Zakaria that contemporary Islam does have a problem with violence and oppression (especially of women and gays).

Zakaria (a frequent guest on the Daily Show), however, puts things in the right context when he reminds us that all we need to do is to look at the relatively recent comparative history of Islam and other Abrahamic religions to be convinced that there isn’t anything especially pernicious, in the long run, with the former when compared to the latter [11]. The (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, for instance, was one of the most tolerant places bordering with Europe for centuries, while many (Christian) European countries themselves were busy suppressing or violently expelling religious minorities, including different flavors of Christianity. This, Zakaria rightly concludes, ought to dispel any simplistic idea about one of the Abrahamic faiths being intrinsically worse than the others, selective quotations of the Quran by some modern commentators (on both sides) notwithstanding. (As is well known, the quotation game can easily be played by more than one side, as Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of severely objectionable passages, by modern moral standards.)

It would seem, then, that Maher & co. simply haven’t bothered to study history, and that it is a combination of social, economic and political factors that is creating a special problem for Islam in the contemporary world — just like different circumstances did not lead to the same problem during the Ottoman Empire, and did lead to them in Christian controlled countries for many centuries.

Well, not so fast (and here comes the hopefully more nuanced approach that might save us from simplistic dichotomies). It is also simply unconvincing to argue, as Stewart and a number of his guests have done — that Islam qua religion and idea has nothing at all to do with the above mentioned culture of violence and oppression. If one asks recruits of Al Qaeda or ISIS why they are doing what they are doing they reply with a combination of political motives (get American military bases off their sacred land, for instance) and their own interpretation of what Islam is about and the Quran mandates.

Sure, one can argue that such interpretations are simply mistaken (though it’s hard to adjudicate theological debates, since we can’t ask the alleged divine source), but even so those ideas clearly play an enabling and highly motivating role in the ensuing violence and repression. To deny this is simply not to pay attention to what is plainly in front of our eyes and ears.

The above should clearly  imply that the dichotomy presented to us by the “it’s the mother lode of bad ideas” vs the “it has nothing to do with Islam” crowds is simply mistaken. And it is mistaken for reasons that, again, ought to be familiar to anyone even superficially acquainted with history. We have plenty of examples of how certain combinations of external and internal social circumstances have become fertile ground for extremist ideas, religious or not, and of when bad, or badly interpreted, ideas feed right back into people’s behaviors, giving them a way to rationalize and magnify their thinking and actions.

Take, for instance, the rise of “communist” countries during the 20th century, particularly Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Unlike, say, nazism and fascism — which I think truly are irredeemably bad ideas — communism as developed by Marx and Engels [12] is not even close to being in the same ballpark. It may be unworkable, and even undesirable, but it isn’t intrinsically evil. Yet the communist ideal was easily twisted by unscrupulous and power hungry “leaders” like Stalin and Mao (and a number of others), resulting in many decades of entirely non-religious violence and oppression that killed many times more people than contemporary Islam has managed so far. Why? Because millions bought into the ideas that were being presented to them and used them as a justification for what they were doing, even though they were doing it at the least in part because of external social, political and economic circumstances (just remember in what context both the Russian and Chinese revolutions took place [13]).

So, while some people may very well be “Islamophobes” (i.e., they may genuinely harbor an irrational prejudice against Islam), simply pointing out that Islamic ideas play a role in contemporary terrorism and repression does not make one a Islamophobe, and using the label blindly is simply an undemocratic, and unreflective, way of cutting off critical discourse. Then again, those who focus on Islam as uniquely problematic may themselves benefit from dusting off a couple of history books and learn a thing or two about the complex interplay of ideas and socio-political situations in human affairs, before making themselves Paladins of simplistic and highly misleading non-truths.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Scientia Salon, and his latest books are Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press, co-edited with Maarten Boudry) and Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (Basic Books).

[1] The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, by M. Boudry, F. Paglieri and M. Pigliucci, Argumentation:1-26, 2015.

[2] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.

[3] Jon Stewart, Wiki entry.

[4] Bill Maher, Wiki entry.

[5] See: The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Indecision Theory, ed. by J. Holt. I contributed chapter 17, “Evolution, Schmevolution.”

[6] Politically Incorrect, Wiki entry.

[7] Religulous, 2008, IMDB entry.

[8] See: Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?, Rationally Speaking podcast, 8 March 2015.

[9] Sam Harris Defends Assertion That ‘Islam Is the Motherlode of Bad Ideas’, Media ITE, 13 October 2014, commenting on an episode of Bill Maher’s show.

[10] Take a look at the Global Terrorism Database, though this article by the BBC clearly shows a recent, sharp, increase in terrorist attacks, mostly of an extremist Islamic nature.

[11] Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now, by F. Zakaria, Washington Post, 9 October 2014.

[12] The Communist Manifesto, by F. Engels and K. Marx, Project Gutenberg.

[13] Russian Revolution, Wiki entry; Chinese Communist Revolution, Wiki entry.

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79 replies

  1. Late to the party again.

    The article makes some good points and to me it seems unobjectionable. I worry, however, when those who see no substance in religion start trying to defend it, since the defence tends to be rather underwhelming. It should not be assumed, for a start, that people who call themselves Christians, Muslims and Jews have much of an idea about their religion or much of a clue how to defend it.

    When two people who pride themselves on their Christian beliefs, deluded as they may be, invade a Muslim country then the outcome is predictable. My prediction was a century of terrorism and it seems to have been spot on. Hardly rocket-science. So the social/political/cultural issues are the real ones for me.

    Having said that, I dislike Islam for its style and presentation. For me the true followers of Mohammed would be the Sufis and I would want to defend their view and oppose any other. Nobody (of course) takes any notice of the Sufis. All attention is on the dogmatists and literalists since this is our approach to Christianity and we just transfer it between religions. Hopeless.


    “Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general are particularly good ideas. In my mind they originate from a combination of false presuppositions (that there are higher beings of a supernatural kind) and a power grab by individuals (i.e., religious leaders) who sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not) end up exploiting the fears and hopes of the people that they are supposed to lead.”

    This is what I mean. It’s all about the dogmatists, exotericists and literalists. To some extent what you say here would obviously be spot on, Bush and Blair proved this if nobody else. But the whole of religion is dismissed on the basis of not taking any account of most of it. I suppose we should dismiss science and philosophy on the grounds that a lot of it is nonsense rather than do it justice and look for the good stuff.

    I feel that on the whole science remains utterly ignorant of religion and makes no attempt to understand it. Meanwhile the world falls apart. To me it would be a failure of scholarship, and except for inertia I cannot see even one excuse for it. There would be no point in debating Islam at this level since it is assumed from the start that it is nonsense, just an idea for accruing power and based on mere presuppositions. I feel no need to defend religion when it is no more than this, or see any point in working at this level of analysis.

    I don’t want to be always sniping but really religion deserves better. I have yet to see a single criticism of religion in this webzine that would worry a religious scholar. So sniping it is until something substantial comes up.

    My complaint is not specific to this article, webzine or author, I should hasten to add, but much more general. I love this place and feel it is doing great things while the articles and discussions are a joy to someone who cannot just drop into the staff-room for an argument. I have learnt a great deal here and view it as a Godsend. But as long as religion is treated superficially I feel these discussions will struggle to contribute to progress or settle any debates. It cuts us off from a whole range of very useful ideas. The problem may be that in the US the religion debate seems to have descended into utter madness, and I can understand why this leads to some pretty weird arguments against it.

    Finally, I’d agree that the dualism spoken of is a mistake and that the issues call for a much more careful approach.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Perhaps a little self-critical analysis is in order. Politics and religion is an extremely rich mixture, indigestible really, even by a collection of extremely smart individuals. The reason for this impasse is quite straightforward: All the comments are insightful but they all include errors in logic, due to bias and/or misinformation. All completed thoughts are manufactured, unaided, in a single brain. The necessary inputs from others are highly unreliable due to errors in the text or due to errors in interpretation. Most significantly, each brain can access only a small fraction of the relevant information. A discussion like this is very valuable but change is very, very slow. Many superstitions and falsehoods were accepted as true by the mainstream aeons ago.

    Arbitrarily appointing myself as the judge, I skimmed through the post and comments looking for little statements that I disagreed with or could quibble with, even though I might agree with the overall perspective of the author. Here then is a small sample:

    : (communism) may be unworkable, and even undesirable, but it isn’t intrinsically evil.

    : you should never rely on heuristics where you really need to get it right!

    : So “the separation of church and state” is not happening in the US all that well, so it is difficult for us to “preach” this to other places.

    : Christianity is in general worse than Judaism, and Islam is worst of all, and if not the mother lode of bad ideas,..

    : Let’s just leave it at that, and outlaw the rest. As (we) did for Christianism.

    : The Church provides us with an excellent programme that assists us to perform this duty. We educate our children to become responsible and morally sensitive citizens.

    : we must also somehow come to terms with an entirely different world-view – not just as it is Islamic, but as it is a closed, religiously dominated culture, the like of which we only glimpse in the regressive Christian fundamentalist subculture with which we deal with here.

    : a symptom of the illness that is digital media – the circulation of mutated and eviscerated information weighted for political purposes.

    : Liam, and Christianity doesn’t have such fanatics, like here in America?

    : “How do we undo the damage of Western colonialism?”

    : Militant Islam is not Tinkerbell and it will not be reduced and removed if enough people just say “boo”. Its recent rise was without question a result of ill-thought out policies based on black-white thinking, which militants took advantage of, and more of the same is not going to help.

    : All this. All the above text, is a waste of time that could have been spent talking seriously about what Muslims really *do* believe.

    The epistemological point I am trying to make here is that certainty about anything is a delusion, whether individually or especially as a group. The empirical and mathematical evidence in support of this is pretty overwhelming. Our calculator (brain) is overwhelmed with data. In stead of crashing, it forges ahead propelled by its biological drive.

    Spiritual sentiments are beautiful and without them we couldn’t survive. When these inspiring ideas become attached, with all good intentions, to armies and bureaucracies, we start on the road to hell. That has been the story of these aggressive religions. The hope is that we are slowly evolving out of this habit of identifying with power, but rather into an attitude of seeking greater understanding. I am betting on the scientistic idea of learning to understand ourselves better; strengths and weaknesses.


  3. As I said in my first comment, myths are the explanatory narratives we create that shape the facts to fit our worldview.

    I have found myself surrounded by myths created to confirm worldviews, both in my career and in my private life. To clarify matters I resorted to the simple expedient of getting the facts and going to the coal face. That simple practice has stood me in good stead over the course of my career.

    As a manager in a large company one has to make sense of many contradictory narratives. There are the reports coming over my desk, and they tell a neat story, organised by the teller’s perspective.

    And then there are the facts on the ground.

    My most important single management lesson was to go to the facts on the ground and see the raw, unvarnished truth for myself. Hewlett-Packard immortalised this as the practice of Management By Wandering Around. It kept me fit and it wore out a few shoes but I quickly learned how untrustworthy were the neat narratives coming over my desk.

    I had, over the course of my life, absorbed as fact, the standard atheist narrative of the evils of religion. And then one day I went to ground zero(as a good manager should do) to see for myself what was really happening at the coal face(if you will pardon my mixed metaphors). What I found radically challenged my conceptions of religion.

    First a disclaimer, what I describe is what I saw and experienced in the world of Catholicism. I cannot speak about other religions.

    1. There was no trace whatsoever of the evil trumpeted by atheists. Really, there was no trace whatsoever.
    2. The founding documents of Christianity(the New Testament) contained a message that was overwhelmingly moral in nature.
    3. This moral message was a most admirable one, focussed primarily on love, tolerance, compassion, peace and justice.
    4. The Church structures relentlessly advocated this moral message, repeating it at every opportunity.
    5. The Church and its congregants put into effect this message with an astonishingly broad range of activities, schools for autists, soup kitchens, aid distribution centres, medical clinics, hospices, schools, school aid programmes, university aid programmes. I am talking about all the things I personally saw at the coal face.
    6. Within the Church I found a community of love, tolerance and respect.
    7. It was a supportive community that quickly rallied to help a member in need.
    8. It was a welcoming community that held out a hand of love to anyone, no matter what their orientation, creed or background.
    9. It was a community that fully subscribed to the message of science.

    As I absorbed these facts at the coal face a sense of growing astonishment overwhelmed me. It was in complete contradiction of the standard atheist narrative of religion as an evil. How could they get it so wrong? It became abundantly clear that the atheist narrative was a classic myth, created to confirm their worldview.

    My management instincts were right. There is no better place to understand something than to go to the coal face.


  4. Liam Ubert

    You usefully illustrate an issue for me, viz. the pessimism that currently afflicts philosophers and scientists. It is as if they are losing the courage of their convictions.

    “The epistemological point I am trying to make here is that certainty about anything is a delusion, whether individually or especially as a group. The empirical and mathematical evidence in support of this is pretty overwhelming.”

    As far as I’m aware such evidence is non-existent. If there were any persuasive evidence then religion would be revealed as nonsense.

    “Our calculator (brain) is overwhelmed with data. In stead of crashing, it forges ahead propelled by its biological drive.”

    Yes, but this is not the real issue. The real issue would be the inevitable limit of the calculating intellect. This is just a simple fact. As mathematician Robert Kaplan concludes from his study of our evolving concept of zero or nothing, the world may be more simple than we can think. At any rate, I doubt that any philosopher has reached the conclusion that certainty is impossible, partly because it would be self-refuting.

    What you seem to be doing here is agreeing with religion in saying that true knowledge can only be knowledge by identity, thus not accessible to the calculating intellect.

    While you agree with the mystics that as to the only possible source of certain knowledge, rather than see this as a reason for optimism you see it as a reason for endorsing a pessimism of the kind that is so characteristic of the Academy. This must happen about ten thousand times a minute in philosophy. Right here, it seems to me, is what goes wrong. Our intellects arrive at the correct solution, for we are not stupid, but we reject the weird implications. So we cut ourselves off from any theory weird enough to work and have to argue over the issues forever, having rejected the only solution that would work.

    “The hope is that we are slowly evolving out of this habit of identifying with power, but rather into an attitude of seeking greater understanding. I am betting on the scientistic idea of learning to understand ourselves better; strengths and weaknesses.”

    I very much hope that you’re right but the signs are not good. Again this seems an odd remark. I would have called the idea of learning to understand ourselves better religious or mystical. It seems to be the very opposite of a scientistic idea and it may not qualify as a scientific one.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Coel, oh brother, your “fair read” left much to be desired.

    I didn’t complain that anyone was supporting Maajid. The point was that they have shifted to a different position (one promoting reformation), which they formerly criticized liberals for holding. Not only has there not been a mea culpa to those they previously attacked for that, they continue the same kind of general attack on some monolithic “the left” as before, while staying silent on traditionally liberal policy positions in western nations.

    Of course New Atheists would welcome a reformed and moderate Islam, and they’ve long supported reformers in the Islamic world!

    I guess I’ll have to wait for you to deliver those old quotes lauding the left for trusting in and reaching out to moderate muslims as part of a solution to militant Islam. Oh here’s an interesting piece from a NYT article with a curious quote from Ali regarding the position in her newest book…

    Anyone familiar with Hirsi Ali will immediately recognize a sharp change in tone and newfound optimism in her latest book. Her outlook on the future of Islam and the Muslim majority world has clearly changed, and both her diagnosis of the issues at hand and her solutions have evolved. “I watched four national governments fall—Egypt’s twice—and protests or uprisings occur in fourteen other nations, and I thought simply: I was wrong,” Hirsi Ali reflects on her reaction to the Arab Spring. “Ordinary Muslims are ready for change.”

    Guess no one else read her like you did, even Ali.

    That speech is rather short on specific policy details. Indeed, the only specific new policy… (Note that the bit you quoted gives no actual details of intended measures.)

    Uhm, I specifically used the phrase “same old”, so I’m not quite sure why you picked a new policy. I also didn’t say all policies he stated were authoritarian, so yes you could find some that are reasonable.

    In addition to his usual call for eroding privacy rights (especially on the internet, one of those same old policies I guess must have slipped by you), I’m not sure what details would make a traditional liberal ok with targeting people for what they say (admittedly within the law and without direct relation to violence) and shutting down sites/broadcasts that we deem to be saying things against our values. See that was one of the new policies I directly mentioned and you dodged with “no actual details”. The blatant hypocrisy and double-edged nature of such a policy (regardless of details) should be obvious.

    Regarding your comments to David, the idea that drone strikes and killing people based on intent alone are normal, popular, or mainstream is problematic on four points: 1) popular doesn’t equal acceptible, 2) where is the evidence for popularity, 3) among liberals?, and 4) if so, who are the few people he’s complaining about and why?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo I follow the Codex Sinaiticus version of Slamming Sammy. It’s much more accurate than the Textus Receptus. For instance, in one place, he specifies, in Sinaiticus, that hydrogen bombs are the only suitable nuclear weapons against Muslims. TR, and Codex Vaticanus, both omit this.

    Coel Drone strikes are popular with whom? Obviously, your survey is confined to the US and UK. It also, in the killing of at least one American citizen, quite arguably ignores due process.

    As for your earlier comments … it’s another good argument for Britain to join the modern world and have a written constitution. You can start with a First Amendment.

    Riffing on Liam, Muslims do believe a lot of things. They’re about as diverse as the difference in the U.S., among Christianity, between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ. But, just as New Atheists want to reduce all Christianity to its more fundamentalist versions, most Islamophobes want to reduce Islam to its more fundamentalist versions.

    In both cases, the more fundamentalist versions exist. And, yes, in Islam, they’re probably a larger portion of the total. (However, if one looks at sub-Saharan African Christianity, and not just “Western” Christianity, that gap might not be quite so huge, either.

    As for calls on more “enlightened” Muslims to call out more fundamentalist ones, well, the same applies to Christianity.

    Back to Slamming Sammy Harris.

    For someone allegedly so rigorously analytically skeptical, he turns a huge blind spot to the dark side of Buddhism as religion, including the fact that Buddhists can and do kill people of other religions in the name of religion. and here:

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi PeterJ,

    Your perspicacity is to be commended because you correctly identify that, while I am extremely skeptical of religion, mysticism and philosophy, I am not hostile to those modes of thinking. There is great learning and wisdom to be found on very careful examination. The central lesson that I have gleaned from studying physics, physiology, neuroscience, psychology, economics, finance, sociology and history, to name just a few, is that we should make our own interpretations and correlations in order to minimize error. The wholesale adoption of the formulations of others would just magnify the errors. A quality control program should always be running in the near background.

    It is pretty obvious, however, that one person can not make much of a dent in all the subjects mentioned above. Knowledge is partly a community affair. We are thus faced with an impossible problem, a Gordian knot: the most knowledgeable person is still ignorant of most things and must rely on others. The commonest way to solve this problem is to ignore it (denial) and stay calm and just carry on. Religion and mysticism are popular solutions but they have been disastrously disappointing because too often spiritual leaders claim infallibility, or their followers deem them as such. Claims of direct communication with God are just silly on the face of it because God’s utterances are often marked by the human misconceptions of the time.

    The only remaining option is that humanity tries the best that it can, realizing that it is on its own, and jettison all fallacious myths. It is an empirical fact that the entire content of anyones consciousness is cognate with that person’s understanding of culture as a whole. Global society is a web of individuals, each with ideas, beliefs, knowledge and delusions. The only way forward and upward is to invest in the individual: agency, intellect and respect. We have a lot of work to do because many of the religious and political myths have stated otherwise.

    The good news is that with every established new fact, reality is changed. Society then unconsciously changes as news of the new fact spreads. Hopefully it displaces an old fallacy. Progress!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There are 23 countries where apostasy is a criminal offence – all are Muslim:
    In several more, blasphemy laws are wielded in a similar way – such as in Indonesia.
    Specifically re sharia in Indonesia, the province of Aceh (pop 4 m) is where sharia law has been enforced, in many cases by vigilantism for those seen to be immoral or irreligious.

    I needn’t list the many countries where current political instability is due to islamicism and to the long standing sunni-shia split eg Saudi destabilization of other nation states can be seen as essentially sectarian.

    As to the particular phenomenon of suicide bombing – I think it is specious to argue that it does not arise from a long religious inspired tradition quite specific to Islam (in passing, curiously, many kamikaze pilots were catholics), even though many muslims would be horrified by the idea of 8 year old girls being used. The problem of self-motivating soldiers at the ground level is solved here by religion.

    In term of the list of human rights violations by country in the 2015 HRW list – yes perhaps only one-third are due purely to religion.


  9. Liam Ubert,
    Basically, your comment reads like this:

    ‘Islam is the worst of all bad religions, and we ought to admit that and move on. Where to? Into the better tomorrow free of religion thanks to science (and scientism).’

    Basically you’ve stopped by to say that the whole discussion of the OP – which is an argument for a balanced, nuanced, moderate view of the current issues surrounding Islam – is “a waste of time.”

    But frankly it seems to be a waste of time to bother joining a discussion in order to say we shouldn’t bother with it.

    “I am betting on the scientistic idea of learning to understand ourselves better; strengths and weaknesses.” – Gosh, I wish I had your certainty… no, actually I don’t.

    I don’t even know what spiritual sentiments are anymore; I stopped having any around the time I found my personal peace in Buddhism.

    Yes, as it happens, Socratic is right – while the thought and practice of Buddhism is inherently pacifistic, Buddhism as a religion has been part and parcel of the various cultures where it has come to prominence, and in that cultural symbiosis, Buddhists have frequently engaged in political posturing and even violence. I actually myself point this out to those who assume that somehow Buddhists are all enlightened mystical saints or something. No, Buddhists are humans and given over to all the possibilities of human aspirations and human failings. So are atheists; so are scientismists; Christians, Jews, Muslims.

    This reminds us that there is no ideology that is free from the dangers of cultural regression, fanaticism, or personal misuse. Thus arguments of the nature ‘Xists did this, therefore Xism is bad,’ or ‘Z was a Yist and did bad things, therefore Yism is bad,’ are at best weak arguments, at worst over-generalizations slipping into unbridled prejudice. (There are exceptions, obviously, but to one informed of history, these are actually few and far between.)

    Thus it is necessary to view any cultural/ideological difficulties in the widest possible perspective, accounting for all the complexities of the human experience.

    – “what Muslims really *do* believe” – a Muslim mother of three living in a village in Pakistan, working a garden to keep those children alive; ten miles down the road, a village terrorized by a Islamicist group with a radically different interpretation of the Qu’ran than the inhabitants of the village. Ten miles in the other direction, another village devastated by American drones – twenty dead, including one suspected member of the Taliban. What precisely does this mother believe?

    Frankly, I don’t know. Maybe we should ask her.

    We need discourse and policy that is true to our own values, and yet sensitive to the complexity of the world in which we actually live. We haven’t seen any of that for a very long time in the popular media. If we assume the burden of public reasoning, this is what we should press for.

    “Waste of time?” I can think of no matter more urgent.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Hi dbholmes,

    I’m rather baffled as to how Cameron’s speech is relevant to bashing the New Atheists. They didn’t write it (it wouldn’t have had the sentence “Nor should we try to dismantle faith schools” if they had!). Further, I don’t see any evidence that “New Atheists” as a whole are more authoritarian than the wider populations. E.g. Dawkins is overall less authoritarian than a typical Brit, Harris maybe a little more so.

    The point was that they have shifted to a different position (one promoting reformation), which they formerly criticized liberals for holding.

    Where have they criticized liberals for advocating and supporting an Islamic reformation? (And yes, Hirsi Ali has got more hopeful about the prospects for one, which is a slightly different point.)

    On Drone strikes,

    … where is the evidence for popularity …

    Poll: Americans overwhelmingly support drone strikes.

    But what I’m doing here is not trying to defend drone strikes. My point is that labnut is trying to paint Harris’s defence of drone strikes as the sort of heinous and extreme policy that amoral atheism leads do. I’m simply pointing out that it is a mainstream opinion and that one could find hundreds of millions of Christians who agree.

    That’s my sole point here. As I said, I don’t particularly agree with Harris on much; I’m simply rebutting the so-usual denigration of “New Atheists” based on unfair interpretations of what they’ve said — there being plenty of examples of the genre on this thread.

    Speaking of which:

    Hi Socratic,

    But, just as New Atheists want to reduce all Christianity to its more fundamentalist versions, …

    No, actually, they don’t. This is a myth, just the usual “must denigrate New Atheists any way possible, regardless of fairness” meme.

    Drone strikes are popular with whom?

    Well not with Al-Baghdadi, obviously. They’re popular with Americans. Don’t blame me for that, I’m not American. Don’t blame New Atheists either. You are aware, I presume, that the good old US of A is about 80% Christian?

    Britain to join the modern world and have a written constitution.

    Hmm, the trouble with that idea is that it’s no longer a democracy with universal suffrage. Indeed, in your system only 9 Americans get a vote on some laws! And you can’t vote those 9 out of office if you don’t like them! Are you really sure that is a good system? (Consider either Hobby Lobby, or gay marriage, according to distaste, when answering that.) (And don’t try to kid me that those 9 vote on anything other than their personal political opinion.)

    You can start with a First Amendment.

    Oh yes please, I’d love it! (Though can we skip the Second one, thanks all the same?)


  11. labnut,

    I am not quite sure how an ‘islamophobia’ thread turned into the question whether religions are all good, all evil, or something in between, but your comment is extremely one-sided.

    1. Even if you made such a statement about the officially most benign organisation on the planet I would still know that “no trace” cannot possibly be true. And the RCC is not that organisation.

    2. I have a bible at home and I had to suffer through religion classes in school, so I know well enough that the main message of the NT is that the world is going to end soon, and everything else including the morals flows from that belief.

    3. Even Jesus, while telling people to behave in an inhumanely generous and forgiving way that can only be justified by the belief that they would not need any possessions 30 years later (because Armageddon beckons), still frequently falls into angry outbursts and rants when people don’t do what he wants. He certainly didn’t love that fig tree, for starters. Paul seems more of an organiser and salvation salesman than a moral teacher. Revelation is a gory, unhinged revenge fantasy imagining how all the people who won’t convert to the author’s sect will be horribly tortured to death and then tortured again for all eternity in the afterlife.

    4. True! The RCC is constantly trying to force its morality onto others, especially regarding reproductive rights. But admittedly the pope also speaks out against war and poverty. (Sadly, he also aims to perpetuate poverty by making every family have five to eight children.)

    5. Nobody doubts that churches do charity, the question is whether they don’t also do a lot of unnecessary damage at the same time.

    6.-7. Nobody doubts that members of sectarian organisations are nice to each other. However, child abuse by priests, the Magdalene asylums, heresy trials and excommunication are also ways that Catholics have treated fellow Catholics.

    8. Really? No matter what the creed? They would accept open satanists, atheists, pagans, Nestorians and whatnot without expecting them to change their creeds? And here I thought I read about a priest who had recently been excommunicated. Who knows, maybe you are right, but let’s just say it wasn’t always like that, historically you could be burned at the stake for all of those.

    9. If somebody believes in theistic evolution they do not fully accept science. And this is before mentioning the deliberate disinformation on condoms that is being disseminated by the RCC and causes vast amounts of unnecessary harm across the planet.

    I do not write this because I believe that religion is “all evil”, whatever that even means (I mostly think religion is wrong). I write this because your list is white-washed and cherry-picked, and because your portrayal of atheists is considerably less nuanced than any major atheist author’s treatment of the RCC.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Liam – We are not going to agree I’m afraid. I do not recognise your characterisation of the situation.

    “We are thus faced with an impossible problem, a Gordian knot: the most knowledgeable person is still ignorant of most things and must rely on others.”

    This would be point blank false in my world. If we pick out what’s important to solving the knot, and we can ignore the rest.

    “Religion and mysticism are popular solutions but they have been disastrously disappointing because too often spiritual leaders claim infallibility, or their followers deem them as such.

    Not at all disappointing to me, so there is at least one counter-example. I find the solutions to all philosophical problems in mysticism. No genius required, just a lot of careful simplification.

    “Claims of direct communication with God are just silly on the face of it because God’s utterances are often marked by the human misconceptions of the time.”

    Maybe. Certainly the word ‘God’ causes trouble since it may be used in many ways. But what misconceptions? The conception that time is real? Not all humans believe this and where they do logic is not on their side. Consider Eckhart’s ‘Perennial Now’. Time is not reified in mysticism so the misconception is absent.

    Can you see your own pessimism?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Why criticise Muslims (or anyone for that matter)? I see two separate reasons to do so. Apparently “the unvirtuous” of them is because this can essentially be “fun.” When we are able to convincingly put others down, this does tend to bring us up through what I call “theory of mind sensations” — essentially “I understand, that you understand, that I’m beating you in some manner.” These theory of mind sensations aren’t always to be despised — observe that we probably wouldn’t have sports (or philosophical debates!) without our desires to win. Nevertheless if my own family, friends, religious leaders, and so on were continually being ridiculed for our customs and values, then this should naturally anger me. But jihad angry? Well if I had lots of problems that could reasonably be connected to those ridiculers, perhaps so. Fortunately for me (and others!) this isn’t the case.

    (Because I’ve mentioned “theory of mind sensations,” however, does anyone else notice how much more “virtuous” Scientia Salon seems in this regard lately?)

    Moving now to the “virtuous” reason to criticise Muslims (or anyone), this would simply be to offer potentially useful advice. The problem however is that even when such criticism is offered “virtuously,” this may naturally tend to be accepted in the negative way. So what indeed might be done?

    Given my final observation from last time, or that I should try to be patient here (, I’ve decided not to mention my “cure for everything.” Thus I’ve decided not to mention that science needs to formally acknowledge “qualia” as the essential unit of value for the conscious entity, and so help us use this premise to theorize ways to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies (as well as help our mental/behavioral sciences progress). Instead I shall regale you with the situation of my English in-laws:

    My wife’s family is extremely concerned about extensive Muslim immigration because they say that there doesn’t seem to be much assimilation happening, or the adoption of traditional English values. Furthermore given how different each culture seems to be, they consider this to be like a bomb waiting to explode.

    I’ll also say that my wife’s family spent many years in Singapore while she was growing up, though mostly from the vantage of specifically fabricated western societies. Observe that these are the specific kinds of societies that they consider problematic in modern England when Muslims build them, though I presume that few demanded eastern assimilation of them in Singapore. The difference should be that they had little reason to feel disrespect from the locals, though perhaps Muslims in England bear a much heavier burden in this regard. It is my hope that an assimilation is happening, and faster than naturally mounting anger, though displays of hostility should be inevitable. Poorer blacks in America seem quite burdened in this regard as well, with predictable results.

    If any of the English here would like to reply, I’d appreciate it!


  14. Massimo,
    “Oh crap, now we are getting into apologetics of Harris’ sacred texts…”

    Yeah sorry to do this to you and I know I’ve done it before but on the other hand look, we are having a discussion about Islamophobia, why not discuss America’s leading Islamaphobe? I am trying to discuss Harris as a case in point and keep my eye on the bigger picture.


    There are two things to keep distinct here. One is that I take it to be true (and I would have thought obvious) that in a civil society it is unjust to kill someone for having *any* belief no matter the content. Beliefs belong to the individual sphere which individuals are at liberty to determine for themselves. People are killed or punished for actions or demonstrable intent to act not having beliefs which they may or may not act on. I realize Harris wants to limit summary execution to certain beliefs (very good of him). When push comes to shove Harris is surprisingly cagey about which beliefs these are and whether he is limiting them to extremists Muslims and the like. Indeed he often talks as though all Muslims are extremists or else are not really Muslims or are not taking their religion seriously. I belabored the point because you emphasized context and I am sensitive to context which does not make it better but much, much worse. Again this is what Islamaphobia is all about. It is one thing to see religion as a factor in radicalizing and isolating populations, it is another to see a “war of ideas” with Islam on one side and “reason” on the other. I am with Massimo in calling for some shades of grey here.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Labnut says somebody said that only 10% of conflicts were religiously based. That analysis is probably hindered by too narrow a meaning of the concept of “religion”.

    Probably, if asked that somebody would assert that Nazism was not a religion, nor Nazism religiously based. However, considering Luther’s extremely violent and explicit threats against the Jews, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, relatively to the Jews, Hitler was just applying Luther’s extremely detailed proposals on how to deal with the Jews. For a few details:


  16. Coel You’re British, so it’s kind of unfair to cite drone popularity in the US by proxy while ignoring its unpopularity with those it affects. And then to wipe your hands of the popularity you cite by claiming to be British.

    I never claimed that the morality strikes of drones were driven by atheism myself, so I’ll buy your response as directed to him.

    That said …

    As for New Atheists? Nope, enough of you (and you’re one) do things like this, denigrating Xianity in particular, and world religions in general, by lumping all their variety as fundamentalism, for it to be a valid generalization.

    And, you just “did it again.” Yes, America is 80 percent Xn, but it’s not monolithic. It runs from the very conservative Church of Christ to the quasi-deist United Church of Christ.

    As for voting rights issues, I wouldn’t necessarily point a finger from the UK to the US, either. First, even though all it can do is delay action, you have the House of Lords. Talk about unrepresentative! Second, although more limited in powers than the US version, the UK also has a Supreme Court, its version of the “nine” you reference.

    As for Labnut’s angle on atheism in general, I noted that on the previous essay. Apparently he’s not going to change his mind or his voice on that. Unless he stops exercising his voice here again for a while.

    David Duffy Per Massimo’s time-synchrony comments in the post itself, many Christian nations used to have apostasy laws, too. I’ll bet the Vatican still does.

    The “destablization” is arguably, quite arguably, a part of traditional nationalist power politics in which Sunni-Shi’a issues are one tool. Yes, a large tool, but one tool. After all, Arab states won’t even accept “Persian Gulf” as the name for a certain body of water. And, were somewhat wary of Iran back in the days of Shahdom.

    Philosopher Eric is right, indeed, near the end. I think in France even more than in Britain, Muslims, even to the second or third generation, have been placed in situations simlar to African-Americans. At least African-Americans are citizens, as no country in Europe offers unrestricted birthright citizenship. France, it’s a second-generation birthright of sorts. The UK denies citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, which obviously creates a perpetuating chain. Germany was entirely jus sanguinis, but has liberalized that somewhat.

    So, note to Europeans bemoaning actual or alleged Islamic terrorism on your own soil? Maybe you should look in the mirror as part of that. I’m not saying that birthright citizenship would be a cure-all, but would it actually hurt?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Coel, you appear baffled by many things.

    For starters I didn’t bash the New Atheists “as a whole”. If you read my post “fairly” it said some New Atheists. I have since explicitly stated who those “some” were, and never said anything about being more authoritarian than the wider population (although now that you mention it…). This was about their relationship to liberals, which they claim to be while continually blasting “the left” and at the same time supporting (or not criticizing) conservative policies in western gov’ts. Cameron was offered as a recent example where all were aware of and associated with the assistant speech writer.

    I’m not sure how hard this is to follow.

    They have up until recently criticized liberals for thinking moderate forms of Islam either currently exist and/or can exist, and as such maintained it is not a realistic solution to the problem posed by Islam. The idea that Ali has gotten “more hopeful” as if she had some hope for reform before goes against her own words in the quote I presented. Like I said, I’ll wait for your old quotes (<2012) supporting your claim.

    On drone strikes, you seem to have lost the ball altogether. I specifically replied to your comment to David, not Labnut. You used his name, I used his name. And there was nothing about amoral atheism at all.

    Regarding your evidence for popularity, it only refers to US citizens. And did you read it? It is so shameful I’m just glad I’m not a… damn it.

    If a study came out saying that a majority of muslims support sudden surprise attacks on their enemies (58%), and are not very concerned whether it kills innocents (52%), or if it was illegal (71%), or whether it could lead to retaliation on their own population (69%), or damage their reputation (76%), the New Atheists would (rightfully) be concerned.

    That it is US citizens doesn’t make it alright.

    It would have been interesting if Pew polled the same number of US citizens on how they felt about mideast nations doing the same thing to them.

    Hi Massimo, as a slight extension of your analysis, it might be useful to consider the history of the false dilemma itself. It was apt that you chose two media figures as exemplars, as (from my position) this was a product of the media.

    The New Atheists were a media invention in the first place, basically a two-fer as they could be placed against the religious and fellow liberals alike. Media at this point seems to thrive on endless argument (not debate). And this supposed “dilemma” seemed like a case of (since NA stances were making them irrelevant) egging people on like kids “hey, why don’t you and him fight!”

    Frankly, I think we should reject the idea it is an important issue, and demand media get back to covering actual policy, not theology.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. It seems to me that religion addresses the central conundrum of life. I think of religion as a specialized type of storytelling, sacred storytelling. Storytelling (and religion) is one of the most ubiquitous characteristics of human society. My understanding of evolutionary theory is that it has to account for ubiquitous behavior. So the natural question is: What is the evolutionary requirement for Religion/Storytelling?

    Storytelling addresses a conundrum that is true for all life but only self-consciousness is aware of it enough to have to reconcile it conceptually. The conundrum is that on the one hand the processes of life put no particular value on any individual or group, all are dispensable. Some may fare better than others but not because of any extra-material intervention but simply because of material cause and effect. Life forms are disposable through species design or simply accidental circumstances. At some level all conscious life is aware of this, this is the reality of life.
    Yet the process of evolution rewards human groups that in fact believe in their own special value, groups that believe that life values them above others. This is in fact a great evolutionary advantage. Thus the conundrum: Life doesn’t really ultimately care much of a wit about you, but if you and yours don’t fervently believe otherwise you won’t last as a species. It is a truism in psychological circles that self-esteem is one of the primary attributes enabling a successful life.
    Religion is the primary storytelling method humans have used to try to reconcile this irreconcilably reality. In doing so they are often obliged to resort to outlandish stories to make their point. Unfortunately seeing this conflict squarely does not resolve the conflict. It does not somehow give one a leg up on solving it. One still has to find a way to consider oneself of real worth to live very successfully. Evolution has indeed embedded many successful very subtle ways to do just that or we wouldn’t be around.

    Religion is not likely to go away, it is a major strategy (though certainly not the only one) of an evolutionary requirement for humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi ejwinner,

    Our second comments ‘crossed in the mail’. Your concerns about my dismissal of religion and philosophy are unfounded as you would have seen from my second. These modes of thinking are necessary, valuable and important. You may be guilty of imposing a false dichotomy! Perhaps a jumping to conclusions. We all should be careful because the brain has well demonstrated tendencies to make decisions without all the relevant information, or to fill in the blanks in order to make the picture understandable. Despite these and other limitations, the brain is still incredibly powerful, and is all we have by which to deal with our overarching challenges.

    Incompleteness and uncertainty are fundamental factors in our attempts to deal with reality. Religions are just one of the many ways in which we deal with this unmanageable complexity – fundamental questions about epistemology are thus made easier, even though we are lead further from the truth.

    Hi PeterJ,

    You are right: “We are not going to agree I’m afraid. I do not recognise your characterisation of the situation.” The sentiment is mutual at this moment and I doubt that more discussion and debate will come to a much different conclusion.

    This inability to communicate at a deep level is in fact to be expected. Every human is structurally and functionally different, sometimes to a very surprising degree. Yet we are often completely unaware of these differences. But this is what science teaches us about ourselves.
    Differences in sentiment, affect and feeling are deeply ingrained, even hidden. This is why two individuals can look at the same scene and come to completely different understandings.

    While I am very skeptical, I am still somewhat of a positivist. I have this ‘feeling’ we are going in the right direction; I feel quite optimistic that we might turn away from the disastrous, triumphalist strategies of the past. I am sorry that my skepticism about philosophy, religion and mysticism made you feel pessimistic.


  20. DB must disagree with you, at least in part, on the Gnus. Even if they were to some degree a media invention, they took to the idea like a duck to water, in terms of self-promotion, etc.

    And, to the degree they are deliberately antagonistic toward religion in general, and not just fundamentalist versions (witness Coel explicitly wishing for a French-style “secular state” elsewhere; witness Gnu leading lights calling religion [again, in general, not just fundamentalism] a mental illness, calling religious education for children a form of child abuse, etc.), they are a different kettle of fish.

    The willful acceptance of this is illustrated by Vic Stenger’s “The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.

    I suggest one go to the Amazon link and see how much “New” is highlighted on the cover.

    That said, the old 19th-century US phrase “village idiot atheist,” in my book fits at least some Gnus.

    Let’s also not forget Dan Dennett’s “brights,” then him committing what I see as an outright lie when he said that was not pejorative toward theists, whom he suggested could use the word “supers” for supernaturalism. I had been losing respect for Dennett as a philosopher before then; I lost respect for him as a person after that. And, my diminution of respect was more over the lie than over the word “brights.”


    Back to the subject at hand. I am reading a new book titled “ISIS.” The authors note that it is possible to “deprogram” young jihadi recruits, like those that come from Europe or the US (and, no not all of them Muslim by birth, either), to fight or ISIS or Al Qaeda. But, there are no guarantees that the disenchanted, seeking to return home, will remain peaceful, either.

    One big difference/issue on fundamentalist varieties of Islam versus other terrorists is that they are, while well short of a majority of Muslims, not insignificant, of course. A bigger difference is that they operate in the Internet Era, and specifically, with social media. The “ISIS” book talks a fair amount about this, and notes how the likes of al-Baghdadi have gone far beyond bin Laden in this.

    And, the book relates this also to freedom of speech issues and how that ties to various Internet fora started and primarily operated in Western countries, above all Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and their relative degrees of commitment to free speech even with grisly material.

    Finally, the book references jihadist groups’ history of splintering. Based on that, we should take their Internet airplay with a grain of salt. So, we should have reasonable worries about Islamic extremism — but always with a sense of balance.


  21. I believe I have a final comment here.

    I just want to apologize to Liam Ubert if I misunderstood his comment to which I was responding. Perhaps we are closer in view than I originally assumed.

    (However, I admit that I am probably even more pessimistic in my own out-look; though I feel it is an ethical imperative to continue to press forward for progress, however unattainable it may be.)

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi dbholmes,

    For starters I didn’t bash the New Atheists “as a whole”.

    You did indeed say “some” New Atheists in your first comment. But that wording puts the emphasis on the “New Atheists” rather than on the individual names (if that’s what you meant) and thus your first comment is indeed hostile to New Atheists *in* *general* and *does* “bash” them.

    I … never said anything about being more authoritarian than the wider population

    Well you did say “Not so funny, is that they appear to be cozying up to the right and agreeing to bizarrely authoritarian solutions …”.

    And so far your only support for that claim has been that New Atheists generally laud and welcome Maajid Nawaz — a liberal reforming Muslim — who had a role in Cameron’s speech which does not contain any “bizarrely authoritarian” measures.

    That’s supposed to justify your initial comment?? I’m sticking to my claim that your first comment was unfairly hostile to New Atheists and that you have not since justified it.

    On drone strikes, you seem to have lost the ball altogether.

    Not at all. My SOLE POINT is that support for drone strikes is mainstream and widespread among Christians. That was in reply to labnut’s remarks about atheism and Harris at the end of the previous thread. That is my SOLE POINT on the issue. It is an entirely correct point, substantiated by the evidence I cited.

    Hi Socratic,

    This is an utterly classic example of how people accuse the New Atheists of things that they don’t say! I state that the US is “about 80% Christian”.

    You reply:

    Nope, enough of you (and you’re one) do things like this, denigrating Xianity in particular, and world religions in general, by lumping all their variety as fundamentalism, for it to be a valid generalization.

    And, you just “did it again.” Yes, America is 80 percent Xn, but it’s not monolithic. It runs from the very conservative Church of Christ to the quasi-deist United Church of Christ.

    My comment was that the USA is “about 80% Christian”. It did not continue “… and it is monolithic and they’re all fundamentalists”. What exactly did I do again? I didn’t say they were fundamentalists (I did say that many of them support drone strikes, but that’s a simple fact). It really is amazing what people read into what “New Atheists” say!

    By the way, Dan Dennett did not invent the term “brights”.


  23. Liam

    ” I am sorry that my skepticism about philosophy, religion and mysticism made you feel pessimistic”

    Not pessimistic at all. It is not my problem. I would recommend philosophy though, as it helps make sense of the other two.


  24. Thanks Socratic for including me in your assessment above, though I do wonder how many grasp the true point I was making. The issue was not so much “bad government,” but rather “the social implications of disrespect.” Growing up as a reasonably “clean” white kid, but being schooled with some quite angry black youths, I was apparently perceptive enough to figure out what was going on — my very presence there offended them, and so they naturally wanted to get back at me knowing darn well what I must be thinking about them. This sort of “theory of mind” dynamic must surely be happening in Muslims communities as well. Nevertheless my in-laws tell me that they aren’t so worried about Indians in this regard (Hindus), and I should say that Mexicans don’t seem so dangerous over here (Catholics). This would suggest that perhaps the variety of religion does contribute, or at least when mixed with the right ingredients. But even if so (and we really don’t know) it will surely be unproductive to go around yelling about how horrible Muslims happen to be!

    Speaking of “chip on the shoulder,” I’m starting to get a sense of how radical this “new atheism” stuff is, and thus the anger on each side. Well this is simply not me. Regardless of what it is that created us, I would hope for us to figure out what indeed got built. As I see it one major problem here is that science presumes “good/bad” to be outside of its scope, while philosophers waste their time on the socially defined concept of “morality.” I’ll see what I can do to help fix things, and hope for others to work on this as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Coel Yes, I know Dennett didn’t invent “brights,” but he was a leading popularizer of it, and he did say everything I mentioned about “supers,” etc., as part of that attempt to popularize the term. Nice try.

    Also a “nice try” on the 80 percent. If you wanted to distinguish between types of Christians, why didn’t you when first stating that? Given what you’ve said before, I think my assumption was more than readily warranted. That’s especially because Christians aren’t monolithic on this issue: And, threee months after that, many of these people sent a petition to President Obama: They include Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, and the head of the National Council of Churches.

    So, I stand by my previous comments. In the future, I respectfully suggest that if you don’t want me to consider you a “lumper” when you talk about matters of faith and people of faith, you distinguish them more.

    And, yes this is a Gnu issue. I’ve read Dawkins; I’ve tangled with PZ on this.

    As for actual support for drone warfare? The latest polling I was able to find online shows that support is FAR less than 80 percent.; another poll a month earlier, in April, had similar findings: Note that even among Republicans, it’s less than 80 percent support.

    So, Politico, the link you provided, had a lying headline. Fifty-eight percent is not “overwhelming.” And, as a physicist, I think you know that too, if you read beyond the headline to the second paragraph of the story.

    So, in summary:
    1. Not all American Christians support drone warfare;
    2. General American support for drone warfare is far less than “overwhelming”;
    3. Not distinguishing between Christian denomination attitudes, as exemplified here, is something often done by Gnu Atheists.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Massimo,

    Enjoyed and agree.

    John Horgan expressed a similar position. He’s a psychologist and expert on non-state terrorism. When he was interviewed by John Horgan (!) for Scientific American he stated:

    … it has become impossible to talk about the relationship between Islam and terrorism without causing great offense to some. Debate is so polarized now between those who say that we if we want to understand terrorism, Islam is “everything,” and those who say that Islam is completely irrelevant. Both positions are incorrect.

    And like you say though religion does have a load of bad ideas, and Islam’s are especially prominent these days, religion is hardly all bad.


    Horgan also had some other interesting things that address some points brought up in the comments:

    … I certainly think the role of Islam, and religious ideology more generally, is vastly overstated as a mobilizing agent for involvement in political violence

    … In fact, more and more evidence suggests that quite a few terrorists acquire their radical views through ideological training only after they become involved with a recruiter or a group.

    … The bigger issues [of why people turn to terrorism] include alienation, shared anger or outrage (e.g. at some foreign policy), frustration, disillusionment, a sense of victimization by the actions, or in the case of Syria, inactions, of others. The littler issues, the “lures” include the perceived benefits of turning – e.g. adventure, excitement, camaraderie, a sense of belonging, being part of something far bigger etc. The key to understanding is not just to ask why people turn but how they turn, and what strategies recruiters use in that process. Effective recruiters will use whatever tools in their arsenal to pull someone in, whether it is convincing them of their duty to go fight in defense of others, to convincing them that involvement offers them a way out of the humiliation and victimization the recruiter will remind the young person they are otherwise destined to face at home.

    Considering Horgan’s points and that a lot of other researchers who are studying terrorism (and make it their field of expertise) are arriving at similar conclusions, I find it’s becoming harder to understand why there are still so many misconceptions that dramatically inflate the relative contribution of religion.

    And I find it especially hard to understand when these misconceptions are coming from relatively prominent people who claim to be scientifically driven.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Hi gang (but especially lab and db),

    I gotta stand up a little for Coel here. I myself don’t find support for current US drone policy entails endorsing Harris’ views (surely we strike those we do not because they believe certain things but because they are part of a military or para-military organization which *acts* on certain radical beliefs). I think that’s the way to come at it. But Coel is totally within his rights to point out many Christian Americans obviously, statistically must support drone warfare. That’s just true. (Whether it amounts to Americans supporting Harris’ statement is another matter.) Socratic, I particularly distaste seeing a Brit told he shouldn’t comment on American politics. And its especially strange on an often political blog run by an Italian. Everyone is affected by American politics and especially foreign policy, and anyway anyone can find an objective perspective even if they are not from around here. Also I AM an American and I can tell you that support for drone warfare is very broad and many Christians support it. In fact drone warfare support is most secure among right-leaning Americans who are more likely to be Christian. Coel is a known over generalizer but I can’t see where he has done that on this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. marc levesque,

    Once more there are some obvious questions that remain:

    If it is outrage at colonialism or cultural imperialism that determines whether somebody becomes a terrorist, where are all the Congolese, New Guinean, and Bolivian Aymara terrorists flying airplanes into American skyscrapers, murdering French cartoonists and trying to blow up Spanish trains?

    If adventure, excitement, camaraderie, a sense of belonging, being part of something far bigger are such big draws, why don’t these people try to get all that from a movement that does something productive as opposed to dragging their region back into the early middle ages? Why do angry young men in some areas vote for a leftist president while angry young men in other areas throw acid into the faces of unveiled women?

    If it isn’t about religion, why do the terrorists constantly tell everybody that yes, they do it because of religion, and yes, it is all about religion?

    If an animal rights activist tells us that they are in it because they feel empathy with the animals, should we retort that no, the activist is only in it because they want a sense of belonging? Well, that may well be a factor why they became member of the group, but why an animal rights group and not a trade union, a church or a sports club? A factor that can explain every behaviour explains none.

    I have yet to see somebody from the “it’s all imperialism, religion doesn’t matter” crowd to actually address these issues, as opposed to change the topic.

    Last comment, I’m out.


  29. Late here and haven’t read all the comments, so if this is repetitious…

    As I see it, the logical fallacy of monotheism in general is that a spiritual absolute, whatever your feelings about spirituality, would be the essence of consciousness and biological vitality from which we rise, not an ideal form of judgement and morality from which we fell.

    Good and bad are not some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental, with the logical caveat that in order for a society to function as a whole, it must have some larger, mutually agreed on scale of good and bad, in order to function and that the older and deeper the cultural roots, the more primitive some of them will be.

    As it appears today, Judaism seems to retain much of its tribal intentions, with much worldly experience to moderate it. Christianity definitely has some pagan pantheistic tendencies, such as the Greek year gods expressed in the dynamic of god as father, son and holy ghost, as seeming analogy for past, present and future. While Islam, being the youngest and most politically effective in its earliest years, is consequently less nuanced and more absolutist in its conception of god as a supreme father figure.

    It is a useful political tool to claim a spiritual universal authority, as that naturally empowers those at the forefront of society, rather then the element of being running through all of life, which naturally dissipates power.

    In some ways, our current social constructs are not particularly advanced either. Treating the medium of money as a commodity, because we like to possess it, rather than the social contract that it functions as, is about equivalent to thinking the earth is flat, or the center of the universe, because we sense it as such.

    Yet the powers that be naturally encourage this line of reasoning, as it allows them greater control and extraction abilities, much as religion did for prior cultural models. Bottom up control, rather than top down.

    Normalcy bias.


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