Arguing Fairly: Sam Harris, Murtaza Hussain & Twitter Fights

It amazes me just how much crap can be thrown between people in small intervals of time. The recent flap focusing on the words and works of Sam Harris, sparked by this article written by Murtaza Hussain, has lined up commentators on both sides who are ready to launch the next volley of excrement at their intellectual opponents. The issue at the heart of this war of words is whether or not the “New Atheism” movement is guilty of fundamentalist-style beliefs that are both unfounded and racist in their orientation. While I do not aim to debate the merit of those charges here, I believe this charge is relevant to the interests of all atheists and secularists. Sam Harris is merely the object around which this particular controversy has swirled, but the nature of the controversy – namely a misrepresentation of a prominent secular atheist’s views – is relevant to those who share in those worldviews. A Recap

This recent exchange kicked off when writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted a link to Hussain’s article. Harris contacted Greenwald and confronted him about retweeting something to 125,000 people that Harris believed drastically misrepresented his views on certain topics. After a back and forth email discussion, both parties agreed to publish the emails (which can be found here). Greenwald later posted a response to criticisms, from both Harris and those defending Harris and/or the views he has espoused. Despite a fair amount of ink being spilled on both sides (including a great critique of Hussain’s article by Robby Bensinger), it seems everyone has become more entrenched in their respective positions; neither side has budged significantly, though each has had a chance to clarify their arguments.

I will be the first to admit that Harris can come off harshly. I was not thrilled with his tone in his exchange with Greenwald, but that does not mean his response was unwarranted, or any less adequate. Harris absolutely had good reason to be upset. His views were being unfairly represented and used to create a caricature that was unflattering, to put it nicely. As someone who lives by his words these misrepresentations are a direct attack on Harris’ public persona. Greenwald was complicit in this misrepresentation insofar as he helped spread it via Twitter. This leads us to today, with both sides dug in following the initial volleys. I imagine this will blow over relatively quickly, as internet battles are prone to doing, and the world will go on with the participants more or less unchanged by the experience. So it goes.

Why Is This Relevant?

Despite the fact this issue will likely be short lived, I think that this is an important issue for atheists of every motivation and intellectual stripe to be concerned with, given Harris’ public prominence as a face of the “New Atheism” movement. For those unfamiliar with the term, “New Atheism” is built on the idea that atheism should actively combat religion and its influence. Most atheists will not fall under the purview of “New Atheism” and might view anything to do with it as irrelevant to them or their interests. I believe this is the wrong stance to take, because any attempt to mitigate the influence of religion in the world is at the very least indirectly influential on the lives of atheists of any intellectual allegiance.

Sam Harris is a leading public crusader against religion and for a secular worldview, regardless of whether you believe his views or methodology are correct. When his views are misrepresented, it has an impact on the public face of secularism and atheism as a whole and this can undermine the effectiveness of those ideas in the public sphere. Whether you believe this is fair or right is entirely beside the point. What I am calling for is not a defense of the man or his arguments, but rather an attack on those who would misconstrue the words of someone relevant to our shared beliefs. Again, I do not want to get sidetracked by Harris’ words, arguments, or positions on Muslims, Islam, the War on Terror, or any of the tangentially related topics brought up during the recent back-and-forth. They can stand or fall on their own merits, though I will touch on why I think focusing on these topics is pertinent. In any case, there are many out there who might share a disdain for religion without believing that Islam is the greatest threat to civilized society or that the War of Terror is at its core a war on the ideas upon which Islam rests.

What’s At Stake

Everything that is under discussion between Hussain, Harris, and Greenwald has to do with how groups of people should interact with one another, given the interests of the varied parties. Harris is concerned with the defense of civilized society, particularly those formed around ideas like freedom of expression, speech and religion. His worries about Islam stem from these concerns. Jihadi networks, religious sectarianism (leading to what can arguably be called civil war in places like Iraq and Syria), the religiously founded subjugation of women, and the rise of Islamists following the Arab Spring all serve to support the “New Atheist” view that religion needs to be confronted because it is ideologically dangerous to the freedoms Western democracies hold dear.

This is not to say that Harris is the only one championing worthy causes here. Greenwald is obviously concerned about abuses perpetrated in the name of that confrontation. Based on my reading of his Twitter history and counterarguments with Harris, Greenwald seems focused on the way this confrontation is handled. He sees in Harris someone who might advocate racial profiling, torture, and other systematic abuses of Muslims. Hussain echoes these worries, though I believe he does so in a more disingenuous way given the poor way he characterized Harris’ views. I cannot criticize these men for wanting to make sure we do not overstep our moral boundaries when trying to confront a problem.

While granting that Harris’ detractors may have valid concerns, that does not mean that secularists and atheists do not have a right to push back when the very virtues our free societies are based on appear to be under attack. Like it or not, there has been a succession of Islamic societies that stifle free speech, particularly in the realm of religion, and freedom of expression. There are sound reasons to be concerned about the ascendency of Islam, though the ultimate importance of those reasons is still very much a matter for debate. One need only look at how things have changed in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia since religious authorities took the reins of political power over the last half century. One of the most striking examples is how women virtually disappeared from public life within these nations. In the name of Islam, tens of millions of women around the world have effectively vanished behind their veils.

Harris has been right to highlight these abuses carried out in the name of religion. I would also say that I sympathize with his focus on Islam. The simple fact is that Christianity is dominant in parts of the world that have largely secularized, mitigating the influence Christianity has in those areas and in other regions around the world. The Christianity of today is largely neutered in this sense. In comparison, Islam is a foundational element to many militant groups throughout the world that are actively fighting for the dominance of Islam over all other beliefs. Pragmatically, Islam is the religion that is currently poised to most directly influence the course of global history over the next few decades.

The rejoinder often thrown out against attacks on Islam is that it is hardly alone in abusing power when those who adhere to it have obtained it. Christianity has a mottled history (at best) in this area and secular powers are prone to many of the same misapplications of power. Again, the key difference I see between Islam and Christian or secular powers is that, at this stage of history, Islam is creed explicitly used to justify active and evolving threats throughout much of the world. There simply are not revolutions happening that are underpinned by secular or Christian activism. There are not internationally organized Christian or secular jihadists actively fighting throughout the world against their enemies.

Why Secularists and Atheists Should Care

As an atheist, it is important that I can point out the problems religion is sowing in the world. This does not mean that I can ignore the problems I have at home, such as the potentially questionable use of drones to fight my nation’s enemies. The two moral and political concerns are not mutually exclusive. As an atheist in a secular society (though, ironically, probably the most religious of the Western secular societies), the looming specter of religious political power around the world is worrisome. While I have little reason to fear I will be beheaded for my lack of belief in the United States, I would be very wary of pronouncing that Allah is on par with Zeus in large portions of the world. Religion still has strength left to drastically affect my life and the life of those around me, even if it is not threatening me directly at this point in time.

I think it is dangerous to take the current state of the world as a model for how it will necessarily be in the future. There is no doubt that religion, and in particular Islam, will continue to be major players on the world stage. The Middle East is still in the middle of political and societal turmoil; Europe is increasingly dealing with the expression of religious groups within their borders in the midst of substantial demographic changes; and conservative Christianity in the United States continue to try to reshape American society in its image. As a group, atheists and secularists have only recently begun to have the necessary numbers and a strong enough voice to push back against some of these trends. Given our recent gains and the large number of enemies are the gates of secular society, I think we must be vigilant in our defense of secularism - as well as atheism and skepticism - and its proponents.

If for no other reason that the sake of other atheists and secularists around the world who do not enjoy the fruits of a freely expressive society, atheists within such free societies should be wary when those speaking out on their behalf are under attack. I am not advocating a myopic worldview that only countenances loudmouth atheists or secularists. I in no way want to degrade the intellectual integrity of secularism, atheism, and/or skepticism. I believe the advocacy of these beliefs is in the genuine interests of humanity as a whole and do not want to get derailed by bad arguments, dishonest opinions, or caustic talking heads.

As an atheist, every interest I have is by definition a secular one. While I may not agree with everything someone like Sam Harris says, I must admit what he says matters because of his public standing. When he is unfairly represented, this will have an indirect effect on the movement with which I sympathize and which claims to have my core interests at heart. If people want to argue for or against Sam Harris (or Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, etc.) then they should do so on the merits of what is being debated. When this is not done, I believe we have obligations to reason, secularism, and ourselves to call people out on their intellectually dishonest behavior. It is for this reason that I think this recent war of words is relevant to atheists and secularists in general, and for this reason we must be sure others do not unfairly define and shape our public image.


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