Harris & Hedges:a Match Made in Heaven?

One of the most boring things about celebrity atheist Sam Harris is his obsession with Islamic fundamentalism. I like a lot of other stuff he writes but when it comes to this topic it’s like his voice raises a couple dozen decibels and a couple of octaves as well. It feels like being screamed at.

Am I tone trolling there? Maybe.

Chris Hedges, who’s viewpoint I also admire on a lot of issues also tends towards the rising voice and indignant posturing.

The two of them have had at it more than a few times in debates and in print. Most recently, after the Norway massacre Hedges wrote a pointed column on Truthdig in which he lambasted Harris, along with Christopher Hitchens, for their often expressed Islamophobic paranoia. The implication was that those who expressed such exuberant outrage at this particular religion had more in common with Tea Party wingnuts than the rational atheists they proclaim themselves to be. He also pointed to the influence both have on their various followings. The article is Fundamentalism Kills.

Shortly thereafter Sam Harris responded with Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges. He quotes himself quite a bit, or at least from his own books and employs a number of “psychoanalytical” attacks on Hedges as well as picking on his vocabulary. It’s a little frivolous in terms of a response.

Today Sam Harris posted on Facebook a link, prefaced by “The Future of Islam in Europe? A few reasons to worry”, to a video of a “press conference” by some radical Muslim scholars in Britain. I put press conference in quotes because it appeared that there weren’t too many press there and it was posted on YouTube not on the BBC or other media website. So…you know my neighbor’s kid posts their little manifestos on YouTube as well and has more followers than these guys.

But lets not turn this into a YouTube popularity contest. The fact that a Muslim guy rattled on about sharia law and his utopian hope for a society that lives up to all his Quranic fantasies, even if nobody watched, is reason enough to issue yet another call to the Harrisists to twist their knickers so tight they’ll need the jaws of life to get them out of their butt cracks.

And some of them certainly did get twisted. The comment stream is here. One suggested a Final Solution for Muslims.

“As long as islam has a future anywhere we need to be worried. If we don’t come up with a final solution to the moooslim question, we’re all dead.”

Quite possibly a troll attempt one might be tempted to think, but what followed was certainly written with sincerity. Four people liked that status. Someone wrote in contrast:

I just want to point out that you are a troll idiot.

and 8 people liked that. So twice as many are against a “moooslim” final solution than for it, thus far.

But then the original commenter came up with this rationale which is either trolling for the grand prize or dead serious.

Tommy thousands of years have proven that the marketplace of ideas cannot trump religious ideology. Moooslims won’t abandon the perpertual "paradise" of raping 72 young virgins (or raisins) for all eternity in favor of reason and logic. Not a chance. This is why they need to be rounded up, separated from their children (who can be given secular educations that don’t mention religion), and pumped full of antipsychotic meds while being given forceful de-islamifying re-education for 23 hours a day. The ones who can be de-islamified can be released, the rest unfortunately have to be put down – in the most humane way possible. And spare me the hitler/nazi crap, I’m not suggesting we torture, gas, burn, or enslave anyone. It’s either mooslims or civilization, and unlike most people I an NOT willing to let civilization be destroyed just so I can say "well, I was tolerant."

And then more along the same line appeared.

With any luck, Inshallah, some Mossad/CIA/M6 agents will introduce these Neandarthals in bedsheets to their maker. Inshallah.

What scares me more is the so called liberal secularists who would rather be seen as "tolerant" than confront Islamism. If this community had more sense, we wouldn’t be watching conferences like this. Half of the people here are downplaying, if not defended, these Islamists and the threat they pose. If these were white Christians, this thread would be filled with foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics with torches in hand. If Europe does change for the worse, it will be your fault for letting it happen. Your grand children will hate you for it while they try to put back together what was an otherwise secular and progressive continent. I hope you’re all proud of yourselves. If your grandparents had crystal balls, they would have spent a hell of a lot more time cumming into a handkerchief than your grandmother.

I’m so ready to just go to war with these nutballs, pound them into dust, and be done with it already

These fucking troglodyte camel jockeys are saying that THEY are advanced and the rest of us are in the Middle Ages ? WTF ???

On the other hand some commenters did express some objections.

Did 4 people really like a comment about a Muslim Final Solution? Maybe Chris Hedges was onto something.

WOW! I think Sam really needs to clarify what he is asserting, it is definitely not the type of hatred that is in this thread.

My fav part is when people throw out the same type rhetoric the fundies do — round em all up, sterilize them, etc etc… Looks like we have some NAZIs in the atheist community :P tolerance is the holy grail — nobody seems to have found it (except for citizens under Saladin until the fundie Xtians ruined that too)

I guess now that Osama is dead we need to haul out references to every obscure guy with a beard and a twisted utopian/dystopian dream to keep the flames fanned. The Islamophobic paranoia is as bad as the anti-Islamophobia hysteria. You & Hedges make a great couple.

I wrote the last one and it’s the point of this post.

A passion for the truth is something I understand. Sometimes that passion takes one into areas that get pretty heated. It’s easy to overstep. I’ve done it. But I’m not a New York Times best selling author, public speaker, celebrity or public intellectual. Nor do I have tens of thousands of followers, many of whom having had little exposure to public/political debate. The public debate of ideas has certain rules. There is much nuance and subtext and a fair bit of metaphor mixed in with a certain amount of heady egotism. People in the spotlight tend to magnify their expressions to match the occasion. Many in the audience however take what is written or said at face value. That’s a problem. As much as I agree with what both Harris and Hedges write by way of socio-cultural criticism I have some reservations about their ability to view issues clearly or to express them without bombast.

One of the main reasons I won’t join the current skeptic or atheist movement, even as a Buddhist (which has an atheist viewpoint) which I have gathered so far is an unpopular position, is because of the unwillingness of some of the biggest names, as well as their acolytes to rationally self-examine. There is a supposition of rationality that I find lacking a lot of the time. It is not unlike what I wrote in my previous post on moral credentialing by proxy. Stating “I say I am an atheist therefore I am rational” is as much of a non sequitur as stating “I say I am a Buddhist therefore I am moral (or any other Buddhisty thing)”.

It is equally as difficult to buy into Hedges rhetoric when it is so hyperbolic. He is a political columnist and social critic. His stock in trade, and the basis of his Pulizer Prize winning work, is delving into the fray in a very emotionally engaging way. This makes for compelling journalism. I am perhaps easier on Hedges because he does not make absolutist claims in the realm of rationality and objectivity to the degree that some of the atheist luminaries like Harris do.

I’ll still read what they write, put my helmet on and comment once in a while or even write a blog post or two in support of the majority of their goals. But joining up isn’t in the works.

3 comments on “Harris & Hedges:a Match Made in Heaven?

  1. Sam Harris has also been an outspoken advocate of the use of torture and has trafficked in bigoted tropes about the “ground-zero mosque”. And he certainly hasn’t been alone among the “New Atheists” in doing so. It’s amazing how these defenders of Enlightenment values are so willing to toss aside such precious and hard-won gains of the Enlightenment as free speech and freedom from despotic abuses of power such as torture. There is a clear authoritarian streak in Sam Harris’ thought — and in Richard Dawkins’. Too many people who embrace reason and skeptical thinking are willing to give them a pass on this. I’m not.

    And the so-called “skeptical community” is anything but. Bill Maher, who is not only an anti-vacine wingnut, but also a “germ-theory denialist”, was awarded a Richard Dawkins Award. There are some in the community genuinely committed to skeptical thinking, but Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al. — and so many in the “skeptical community” — are far more committed to blind, narrow-minded bigotry than to true skeptical thinking.

    Jacob Bronowski wrote in his fine book “Science and Human Values”:

    Tolerance among scientists cannot be based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of justice and of due honor. These are values which to the layman seem most remote from any abstract study. Justice, honor, the respect of man for man: What, he asks, have these human values to do with science? […]
    Those who think that science is ethically neutral confuse the findings of science, which are, with the activity of science, which is not.

    Bronowski felt the greatest strength of science was not its findings — the fruit of its activity — but its values. Those values have at its core respect for others and openness to a genuine questioning of our closest held beliefs. Harris and Dawkins know nothing of muslims or those of other religious faiths, and are quick to draw the broadest conclusions of them, and engage in the same sort of vile, eliminationist rhetoric that in other times we have heard “reasonable” people direct toward Jews. It is truly vile.

    I am an atheist myself, and a believer in the value of skeptical thinking. I have worked with and known plenty of religious people — including muslims — who are nothing like the caricatures that Harris, Dawkins, et al. routinely trot out, and who are far more tolerant and open to others than the latter are. In spite of their holding what I would consider superstitious beliefs, they live a better example of the values that are the strength of science and free-thought than the bigots like Harris and Dawkins who dress up their bigotry and authoritarianism in the vernacular of reason, but show no interest in understanding what they attack and no compassion for those who suffer from the bigotry and intolerance they help to foment.

    • Thanks Mike. Well stated.

      I find with Harris especially that it is necessary to really pick through what he writes or says. If he’s talking about human consciousness and it’s relationship to neurology I’m a little more inclined to accept some of the premises but when it comes to politics and culture, especially non-Western cultures he talks out of his ass. As someone trained in Anthropology it’s pretty easy to pick out the errors. But that’s only a “soft science” if any of these luminaries deign to declare it a “science” at all.

      And yes few of the ardent anti-religionists, leaders and followers, even know what they oppose in many cases. I’ve seen some utterly ridiculous statements about Buddhism for example…Buddha being like a prophet Mohammed type figure and similar. The viewpoint completely lacks lacks knowledge in many cases.

      I gave up on Maher years ago after watching Religulous. It made him look far more foolish than half of the people he encountered.

      They all tend to take the statements of the most extreme elements and paint that over the entire spectrum. And in trying to discuss any of that with followers, who tend to be as devout as they come, one gets labeled accomodationist, swallower of kool-aid or some kind of Scotsman unless one agrees completely. There is no room for dialogue what so ever. I’d rather discuss with the Mormons who come to the door on Sundays. I have in fact discussed both Buddhism and atheism with Mormons at the door. I’ve had good comparative belief discussions with people in pretty much every religion. It’s not that hard to do.

      The anti-vax thing & Maher I didn’t know about. That’s just stupid. I have a real beef with a lot of the anti-intellectualism that goes on in Atheist circles as well. Along with the misogyny-the elevator incident really shone a light on that. And the evangelical zeal. And as you have mentioned the utter lack of compassion.

      i take special interest in Harris because he studies a form of secular Buddhism-meditates and attends retreats and even writes articles for Buddhist magazines and often uses concepts from that study what he writes. His recent posts on free will are part of that. This earns him no points with the Gnu Atheist crowd so I think this causes him to double up his efforts on the attack front. He won’t sell many books or be invited to debate if the crowd senses he’s gone soft for something that carries a religious taint as Buddhism does.

      I get the feeling that these horsemen and their outriders are under the impression that they, and they alone will be able to deliver Western civilization from itself. Perhaps that is why they are so vicious. Soteriology is not only the province of the religious it seems. The only thing worse than a self-proclaimed messiah is a gang of self-proclaimed messiahs with an audience.

      As for Hedges, I agree with what he wrote mostly but wish he’d have written it a little more skillfully. Maybe it was a deadline, which I think was the case as it appeared a day after it normally would have. I have read Hedges book “When Atheism Becomes Religion” (formerly titled I Don’t Believe in Atheists) rather quickly recently but intend to read it more thoroughly and discuss it in more detail here later. I also have Harris’ book The End of Faith that I’ve only skimmed and dipped in and out of so far.

      There is a lot more to be said on this topic. I think many people are a little afraid to say it because there are such venomous attacks on those who even dare question the authority of these leaders. That’s just wrong.

      Thanks for commenting Mike. You’ve got me thinking more about this and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has reservations, to say the least, about what is happening.

  2. Thanks for drawing attention to this … I have not been following Hitchens or Harris or the new athiests. Wasn’t very interested. But that’s some horrific stuff.

    Can’t say I agree with you about Hedges, though. This appears to be his thesis:

    “There is no linear movement in history. Morality and ethics are static. Human nature does not change. Barbarism is part of the human condition and we can all succumb to its basest dimensions. This is the tragedy of history. Human will is morally ambiguous. The freedom to act as often results in the construction of new prisons and systems of repression as it does the safeguarding of universal human rights. The competing forces of love and of power define us, what Sigmund Freud termed Eros and Thanatos. Societies have, throughout history, ignored calls for altruism and mutuality in times of social upheaval and turmoil. They have wasted their freedom in the self-destructive urges that currently envelope us. These urges are very human and very dangerous. They are fired by utopian visions of inevitable human progress. When this progress stalls or is reversed, when the dreams of advancement and financial stability are thwarted, when a people confronts its own inevitable downward spiral, dark forces of vengeance and retribution are unleashed. Fundamentalists serve an evil that is unseen and unexamined. And the longer this evil is ignored the more dangerous and deadly it becomes. Those who seek through violence the Garden of Eden usher in the apocalypse.”

    It’s challenging to question my own ideas about “human progress,” which I admit to entertaining quite frequently as a subtext to my sense that the universe is not binary.

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