Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Religious Extremism of New Atheists

I wrote a tiny blurb about this over a month ago.  This one is much longer and leans heavily on solid arguments from many critics - letting their words speak for themselves. The issue has become serious enough to warrant a lengthy rebuttal.


My concern with the New Atheists is born of classroom conversations.  In most of my classes there are a few students who are Muslim and, recently, a few who are followers of the New Atheists' leaders: particularly Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Maher.  I've had students of different races and religions in my classes for decades without having to referee comments until the New Atheists arrived on the scene. Many of the New Atheists are openly anti-Islamic, and because they praise science, somehow student followers have gotten the impression that everything they say is factual and accurate and repeatable.

Suddenly, for the first time in decades of teaching, I'm having to shut down openly bigoted comments in class.  I even had a final exam comment that suggested that Islam as a new religion that brainwashes people and must be actively fought against. I'm not sure how a religion that's 1,400 years old is considered "new," but I'll move on to address concerns with the conflation of some harmful ideologies with atheism, in particular, in the work of Sam Harris.

Harris is pro-gun, pro-torturepro-ethnic profiling, anti-civil liberties, and excited by militarism, who exclaims in The End of Faith (52-53): "We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."  And he's got teenagers following him like rabid lapdogs.  His prose are easy to repeat in debates and slippery to argue with, but that doesn't make them accurate or scientific.  And it certainly doesn't make him leftist despite his claims to liberalism.

Al Mckay of International Relations, says of a defence by Harris, that it
...marks a continuation of his vindication of radical, illiberal, authoritarian, repressive and rabidly anti-Muslim political stances. Let us leave his ideas about the paranormal, reincarnation, Eastern Mysticism, the persecution of the Jews and attempts at philosophy for another day. Harris’ politics are worthy of discussion because one of the strangest things about him is that, on many occasions, he has declared himself a liberal.

I'll quote Glenn Greenwald's Guardian article at length as he explain that Harris's "...atheism invariably serves - explicitly so - as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims."
He and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism. I've long believed this to be true and am glad it is finally being dragged out into open debate. These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good. But it is past time that the darker aspects of their worldview receive attention....Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview....The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening....In his 2005 "End of Faith", he claimed that "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death."...This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that "we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam - particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign - then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted....Most important of all - to me - is the fact that Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture ("there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like 'water-boarding' may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary"); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim state violence ("On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that 'liberals are soft on terrorism.' It is, and they are").

An American Atheist, Robin Marie, says,
In a very long post on the threat the radical Islamic world poses to the the secular (mostly Western) world, Sam Harris gives no credit to any political, social or economic issue in the regions where radical Islam is a problem....he does not mention constant social strife and conflict, he does not mention economic exploitation. The radical Muslims of Sam Harris’s imagination exist in a vacuum, serving only as vectors for ideas – horrible, corrupt ideas which have filled them with pre-modern superstition and primitive ferocity. If you ask him how they got that way, he would point a finger only at the Koran, and especially particular passages in the Koran. There you go!, he says, throwing his hands up. What more do you need? Barbaric ideas lead to barbarians. D-Huh.

In CJ Werleman's article, "Atheists don't get terrorism," he says,
In dealing with ISIS, Harris says, “We won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.” This is a breathtaking failure to understand what and who ISIS is. ISIS is the Sunni militia. Its leadership consists of former Baathist, anti-Islamist, pro-secular Saddam loyalists. When the U.S. removed Saddam and put 1 million Sunnis on the unemployment line, the 20th-century Western-manufactured country of Iraq disappeared, and Iraqis reached back for older identities: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.

Chris Hedges gets in the fray as well with this excellent article:
The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil, not for evil's sake but to make a better world. I started Harris' book when it was published but soon put it aside. His facile attack on a form of religious belief I detest, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist. 
There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.... 
Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible, by trying to argue that we can evolve morally -- something Darwin never asserted. They are as anti-intellectual as the Christian Right.
Hedges goes on to specifically refute many of Harris' claims about Yugoslavia and Gaza.

I'll give Chomsky the last word on this.  He calls Harris and Hitchens religious fanatics, and elsewhere says,
I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment;...they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever;...they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.

Major thinkers and scholars in these areas have demonstrated that Sam Harris misunderstands religion, terrorism, and geopolitics. But the biggest problem with his writing is that regardless the inaccuracies, it's in the populist genre that makes it simplistically persuasive. He sounds like he's making good arguments even when his information is inaccurate and his logic faulty.


One academic blogger did a little digging into Harris' PhD because Harris bills himself as a neuroscientist but doesn't seem to do a lot of neuroscience.  One of Harris's reviewers of his thesis, statistician William Briggs, analyzed Harris's thesis with this comment:
During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.
Later in that link a strange coincidence is explored, and it's suggested that Harris's entire PhD is suspect.
It would seem to me that an atheist activist, being funded by the atheist’s own atheist organization that currently thinks religion deserves “special focus” when it comes to criticism, had a conflict of interest to declare....It’s bad enough that Harris is only “joint first author” on a paper publishing his thesis research and one of four people involved in conceiving and designing the experiment, but ... Sam Harris never did any of the experiments for his own PhD thesis! How many science PhD students are out there working on their own PhDs without doing a single experiment? ...Now, when you consider that Harris has a BA in Philosophy and did not do any of the experiments for this research, it makes you wonder if Sam Harris, the man who promotes himself as “a neuroscientist,” has ever performed a single experiment in his life....Of course, since publishing his thesis, then his book, Sam Harris has never once actually used science to resolve a moral dispute.
Beyond the speculation around Harris's own claims to be a neuroscientist, it is the case, of course, that scientists can be mistaken about moral and political issues.  Being a neuroscientist should never be enough to convince people of claims on religious matters, politics, or philosophy. However, the popularity of his views - and his books - shows a sort of reversal of the ad hominem circumstantial sucks in an unfortunate number of people who agree with an argument based on the circumstances of the presenter rather than the actual validity of his position.

In a formal peer-reviewed paper appearing in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement," Massimo Pigliucci does an excellent take-down of the New Atheists in general and Harris in particular with respect to using science to further morality:
To recap, then, what is considered to be perhaps the quintessential text of the New Atheism is an odd mishmash of scientific speculation (on the origins of religion), historically badly informed polemic, and rehashing of philosophical arguments. Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.... 
Harris’s project is as ambitious as it is misguided:....Harris undermines his own project right off the bat, in two notes that appear in the opening pages, but are conveniently tucked in at the back of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’ ” If that is the case, if we get to define “science” as any type of rational– empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his), then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says How Science Can Determine Human Values (my emphasis). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here.  
Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy...[but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’...directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” This is so mind-boggling that I had to reread it several times: Harris is saying that the whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is to be dismissed because he personally finds it boring. Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?
An entertaining talk (only 7 minutes) by Raymond Tallis, a clinical neuroscientist, refers to Harris's type of claims as a brain-blamers operating under a branch of neuromythology.

As a scientist, Harris isn't doing any science. And as a philosopher, he's doing some shoddy work there too.


Harris's arguments against free will are less a concern for classroom deportment but are no less frustrating to address.  These ideas fit with the former only if a Harris follower were to take up arms against some Muslims, and then Harris could clarify why the murder was not actually the shooter's fault.

John Horgan argued against Harris's claims against free will in the Scientific American article, New Year's Resolution: I will believe in free will:
Harris argued that "no account of causality leaves room for free will." He cited experiments in which magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) "predicts" that a subject is going to do something—on the basis of activity in the subject’s brain—up to 10 seconds before the subject consciously decides to do it....But from another perspective, this rejection of free will makes no sense. Or rather, it goes much too far, because it suggests that our conscious deliberations are epiphenomenal, superfluous, with no real impact on our actions. That is reductionism ad absurdum....Such experiments merely confirm that physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else.
I personally don't think the MRI experiments (which were originally done over 30 years ago) eradicate the notion of free will. Harris argues that since some actions are enacted in our brain without a prior conscious perception of them, therefore all of our actions are enacted in our brain before we're aware of them - suggesting that all our actions are caused by the brain's mechanisms rather than by our own conscious decisions. But, first of all, that's a hasty generalization to shift from one type of behaviour to all behaviours. Secondly, the experiments being discussed have people making small binary actions, choosing to use a left or right hand or move a finger for instance, which could be argued to be more of an urge than a significant decision or intention. Finally, it could be the case that we make a decision that activates brain activity seen in a brain scan before it's clear to our conscious mind. In other words, it could still be the case that we make the decision even if the decision shows up in our brain before we're aware of it.

John Horgan wrote more about Harris in another Scientific American article. Harris suggests that since we accept that a man with a brain tumour doesn't have free will to choose to murder people, then it's clear that none of us have free will. Horgan replies,
Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can’t help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who’s schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny? Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die. But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense. But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world. Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions–or change their minds–in the way that I do. When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation....

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. 
The strongest philosophical take-down of Harris's free will argument is in a review by Alvin Plantinga:
The first thing to see is that there is a serious problem, in this book, about precisely what free will is supposed to be. As we usually think of it, free will has to do with actions and decisions; it is actions and decisions that are free or unfree. You have free will on a given occasion just if you could have done otherwise.... 
How does Harris think of free will? "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and action, and you would need to have complete control over those factors."...According to Harris, I am free in so acting only if I myself chose to have that desire and I myself brought it about that I do have that desire. If instead I just find myself with that desire (have not chosen to have it), then no action I take because of that desire is a free action.... 
Harris' notion of freedom is really an idea of what we might call maximal autonomy. It's obvious that we don't have maximal autonomy; we aren't free in that sense. Indeed, it isn't so much as possible that we be free in that sense. That is because, as he thinks of it, I act freely on a given occasion only if I myself freely choose to have the desires and affections I then act on, and furthermore I myself freely bring it about that I do have them. But note that the action by which I bring about that I have those desires and affections must itself be free. That means that I must have freely brought it about that I had the desires and affections out of which I acted in bringing it about that I have the desires and affections I presently have. You can see where this is going: for every occasion on which I act freely, there must have been an earlier occasion in which I acted freely. This clearly involves an infinite regress (to use the charming phrase philosophers like): if Harris is right, it is possible that I act freely only if it is possible that I perform an infinite number of actions, each one a matter of bringing it about that I have a certain set of desires and affections. Clearly no one has time, these busy days, for that. Harris is certainly right that we don't have that maximal autonomy; but nothing follows about our having freedom, i.e., the sort of freedom we ordinarily think we have, the sort required for moral responsibility.

What we have here looks like a classic bait and switch: announce that you will show that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense required by moral responsibility, and then proceed to argue that we don't have freedom in the sense of maximal autonomy.... 
But he does also declare that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense: "we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes"....This argument is a complete failure.
Plantinga also comments on Harris's brain tumour analogy:
I am sorry to say that I couldn't find the argument. Harris seems to think merely pointing to this possibility is sufficient to clinch his case. But that seems preposterous. Some people under some conditions aren't free; how does it even begin to follow that no people under any conditions are free? ....Harris, on the other hand, seems to support determinism by little more than bland assertion and uncogent argument.

It's unnerving that someone who makes bigoted remarks can get so much praise for aligning with the atheists as if it's necessarily the side of all that's reasonable and good.  His use of science to develop morality is an utter failure, and I question the claim that he's a philosopher of any description.  Now to convince my students.

ETA - Here's a debate between Hedges and Harris that shows Harris' excellent command of the audience, but weakness with ideas of religion, history, and current Muslim culture.

ETA - Here's a comic strip about Harris' philosoophy.

ETA - Here's an article analyzing correspondence between Chomsky and Harris.

ETA - Another article complete with a Young Turks video.


  1. Why didn't you simply entitle this post "I Hate Sam Harris and Atheists"?

    Next blog post title: Honesty and Morality.

    1. I don't hate Sam Harris; I think he's very misguided. I don't believe he's as educated as he professes to be, and I think his arguments are weak yet persuasive. And, since he's argues that we should rid the world of an entire group of people, I believe his views are dangerous.

      And I don't hate atheists. I am an atheist, and I don't want to be associated with the bigoted attitudes of this group.

  2. So we recognize that people are sometimes unfree in their actions. But then, says Harris, can’t we see that the same really goes for any other behavior on the part of that person, or any other person? If the killer’s behavior is determined by previous circumstances and natural laws, isn’t the same thing true of the behavior of any human being in any circumstance? He apparently thinks there is no relevant difference between a case in which a normal person kills someone else just for the thrill of it, and a case in which someone does the same thing, but is suffering from a brain tumor “the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex.” As he says, “There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. I am arguing that it always is.”

    What Plantinga omits is that Harris gives a number of intermediate scenarios between the tumor and the apparent free decision, and challenges you to find the line that demarcates which act has responsibility and which one does not. Instead of tackling that problem, Plantinga just throws the two supposedly opposite cases and appeals to our intuition. It's just "come on, guys, you know it cannot be true". But the challenge remains unanswered, so Plantinga did not succeed in rebutting Harris.

    1. It's a slippery slope argument, and Plantinga shows the incongruity from the first to last. It's similar to someone suggesting that smoking leads to heroin use and has that point refuted, but insists that they need to show each piece in turn is false, that smoking leads to smoking pot, which leads to ecstasy, then meth, then heroin. The argument but only differs by degrees, so dismantling one dismantles them all.


Thoughts? It's easiest to comment with the Name/URL option - then you can pick any name and leave the URL blank if you prefer.