Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sam Harris pt.1, Terrorism and Dogs who adopt monkeys

Let's clear a few things out of the way shall we? This video is of a dog who's best friends with a monkey. There was a flood in Mozambique and somewhere along the line this dog teamed up with this monkey and this video is just the best thing I've ever seen. They're best friends!

If you don't understand the picture at the top of this post, trying stepping back about 4 feet and then looking again.

Has there ever been a more perfect stereotype of the California* elitist view than Sam Harris? Harries decries all those southern redneck idiots for believing in the bible, but then asks us to take it easy on the "spooky stories" of reincarnation because those come from the mysterious and exotic east. That's not a joke; someone questioned Harris' interest in reincarnation at the Beyondbelief conference (which is available by video via that link and is thoroughly awesome) and he said "Well there are all of these spooky stories." I'm not sure how to describe the odd sound that filled the conference room afterward but it somehow gave voice to my own thoughts/emotions (ha, good joke/ oh my god he's not joking/ holy shit you've got to be kidding me, etc.) and is well worth hearing.

Let's break it down:
  • Sam Harris on the great scientific conspiracy to ignore psychics: "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science"
  • On Uniting with Christian fundamentalists to oppose the great "horde" of brown muslim people who hate our freedom: "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living."
  • Coming out in support of the biggest weapon of propoganda that the right has: "my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world ['On questions of national security']"
Sam Harris is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a man who's joined up with one of the world's premier secular rationalists (Richard Dawkins, who I'm sadly becoming disillusioned with as he emphatically supports Harris) ostensibly to support reason. Yet we find in Harris' view of the world a profound commitment to unreason. As Scott Atran points out at the aforementioned BeyondBelief conference, every example Harris cites is an "n of 1"; an example he's randomly chosen from the vast pool of real historical cases. References to actual studies about Religion, its effect on violence, and corresponding studies about secular rationalists are sorely lacking (in fact, nonexistent from what I've read.) Harris' world is one in which we drastically increase the threat of terror with a war (which Harris initially supported) and then blame Islam for the millions who become fundamentalists. One in which Israel illegally acquires swaths of land, militarily occupying a civilian population and largely ignoring the secular representatives of said population (the PLO) but then we act like suicide bombing happens in a Vacuum. As an audience member said to Sam Harris at the BeyondBelief conference "Isn't suicide bombing simply an immoral act of desperation by the weak? Wouldn't these groups simply be invoking the military might of the west if they had the means?" Of course they would rather have an Air Force.

One more Harris quote before we go:
"...such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities."

Any atheist who reads this (much less writes it) without doubling over, convulsing with laughter must be more dogmatic and faith-full than any Christian I know. Things are only "fringe" if poor people engage in them? Again with the elitism, my god. If you have an idea about what inequality statistics show in these countries, showing that something exists in the wealthy educated sectors actually goes further to showing that it's fringe phenomena! As Steven Poole says, "It is like saying serial killers are often quite intelligent – so serial killing must be more common than we thought."

The obvious lesson to take from Sam Harris is something akin to a rebuttal of his views. It's the simple truth that irrationality and warmongering and intolerance are problems that run far deeper than the surface phenomena of religion. It's well-documented that Osama Bin Laden would love nothing more than a war against Islam, and that the recruitment technique for Al Qeada largely relies on the view that the west is Anti-Muslim, and that there is a holy war against Muslims, and so on. Personally, I can think of few better unwitting agents for his cause than Sam Harris.

* please note here that I'm referring to the California stereotype, and not actual Californians who are often far more well-thought-out than Sam Harris.


Matt said...

a few more notes, sorry this post looks bad. I can't explain it, but it does seem poorly-laid-out.

Here's some more articles critical of Sam Harris, all great resources:
This is the best one, from Alternet and involving an interview with Harris.

This one is by a prominent member of the skeptical community, distancing himself from Harris and noting that Harris refers people to paranormal studies in The End of Faith.

Here's a fantastic interview with Dawkins and Alan Colmes, where Dawkins non-overtly distances himself from Harris by declaring Christianity and Islam equally bad.

One more personal note: if it wasn't obvious, I am a secular rationalist.

John said...

But my crystal said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Leah said...

It'd be cool if when you took about four steps back from that Sam Harris picture, you could see Jesus.