Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harris, Aflek, Dawkins, oh my!

It's been a busy couple of days for people who like to opine on the evils of Islam and Islamophobia.  Sam Harris and Ben Affleck kicked things off with a segment on Bill Maher's show where they had quite the scuffle over whether or not Harris was justified in his anti-Islamic rhetoric, or whether Affleck was trying to deny the truth in the name of political correctness.

Lots and lots and lots of people weighed in after that, and there are so many logical fallacies being brandished on both sides that it's hard to know where to begin.  For example, from Reza Aslan we have an argument from authority:
Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.
Hemant Mehta follows up with some ad hominems:
Aslan seems to suffer from a mix of neediness (brought on by insecurity) and outright hubris. It might be a defect of his imagination ...
Guy Harrison offers up a straw man:
Reading the Koran and being aware of its potential to inspire some people to violence do not lead me to fear every Muslim on Earth
Surprisingly, Richard Dawkins starts out by being the voice of reason:
“Religion itself is not responsible for this… It’s also this feeling of political involvement. It’s a feeling that it’s ‘us against them.’ And I think that quite a large number of young Muslims feel kind of beleaguered against the rest of the world. [Emphasis added.]
Indeed.  Alas, he does not go on to ask the obvious question: how much of this beleaguerment might be attributable to the kinds of blanket statements that are made by the likes of Harris and Dawkins?  Instead he jumps straight to affirming the consequent:
And so religion in some sense might be just an excuse, but I do think that a dominant part of the motivation for these young men has to be religion.”
For a community supposedly dedicated to reason, the amount of unreasonableness being un-self-reflectedly bandied about is truly disheartening.

Utterly lost in the confusion is this central claim raised by Aslan:
There is a fundamental misunderstanding among these critics of religion in that they believe, first and foremost, that people get their values, their morals from their scripture, when in reality the exact opposite is true. You bring your morals and your values to the scriptures; you don’t extract them from them.
I don't want to take a side here on whether or not this claim is true.  I believe it is, but that's not the point.  The point is no one is talking about this despite the fact that it's the most important thing that got said in the entire discussion.  Why?  Because if it's true then Harris & co. are wrong, and if it's false then Aflek & co. are wrong.  So why is so much ink being spilled slinging logical fallacies around and absolutely no effort is going into determining the truth or falsity of a crucial empirical claim that could actually inform the debate?  Perhaps atheists, too, bring their prejudices to the scriptures (or the data) rather than the other way around.

So to lead by example, I'd like to offer up an actual data point.  That link goes to the Wikipedia page on the application of Sharia law by country.  I don't have time to slice-and-dice the numbers, but even a cursory glance will show that although there are major populations of Muslims all over the globe, those countries where Sharia law is in full effect are overwhelmingly found in the Middle East.  Last I checked, the Quran is the same all over the world, so this seems to me to be very strong evidence that the violence and barbarism often associated with Islam (and, to be sure, that's a very real problem) cannot be accounted for merely by the words in the Quran.

But I don't have a Ph.D. in religious studies, so what do I know?


Luke said...

>> There is a fundamental misunderstanding among these critics of religion in that they believe, first and foremost, that people get their values, their morals from their scripture, when in reality the exact opposite is true. You bring your morals and your values to the scriptures; you don’t extract them from them.

> The point is no one is talking about this despite the fact that it's the most important thing that got said in the entire discussion. Why?

The answer is easy: we don't want to really dig into the source of our morals and our values, nor do we want to really dig into how they can be and are changed. Suppose there is a Christian who is used to being judgmental, in a way where he/she refuses to help people see the error of their ways. Suppose this Christian comes across the triad Mt 7:1–5, Mt 23:1–4, Gal 6:1–5. The overall thrust of these passages are that non-condemnatory judgment is to be used to help fellow Christians not do The Bad Thing™. There are [at least] two important aspects:

1. You'll likely fail if you don't know how to abstain from The Bad Thing™—indeed, you might be doing it worse than the other person.

2. You need to really help the other person, not just point the finger and yap.

Suppose the Christian sees these passages, concludes 1. and 2., and changes his/her behavior as a result. From whence did this change, this delta, of morals and values, come? Dr. Gregory House liked to say that "people don't change"; well, what if they do? Whence the source of that change?

C.S. Lewis got at this idea excellently in The Abolition of Man: the re-programming of human beings. How? Via altering the emotional responses, aka the 'sentiments'. Suppose that this is indeed going on; suppose that humans are being made more docile so that they 'properly' respond to advertisement. Suppose that Noam Chomsky is right in that we in the US live in a totalitarian state ruled not by physical force but by psychological manipulation—propaganda. Wouldn't it make sense that in such a situation, the powers that be† would not desire that humans be able to see, clearly, what is going on?

Further support for my hypothesis is what I see as a terrible model of human beings in the social sciences, as documented by Donald E. Polkinghorne's Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (Google Books preface), Douglas and Ney's Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences, and F.A. Hayek's Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason. Steven Pinker apparently touches on this in The Blank Slate.

† These powers don't have to be humans; they could be aspects of a giant system, as Jacques Ellul describes in Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes and The Technological Society.

filmboy26 said...

A few good points here, as you are right to point out some irrational thinking happening among our fellow atheists. However, we may need to sift through the emotional elements to find the actual truth. Sure, we can expect the Middle East to be comprised of countries that enforce Sharia Law - but so what? The USA is filled with a majority of Christians who believe very strange things about the afterlife but it has no relevance to how our government works. Yet we have a few states that have blasphemy laws. This doesn't say much about the beliefs themselves.

I agree that you can not lump everyone into a single category, but you do need to look at what these texts endorse, even if only a small amount of believers are true to their religious texts. I don't believe that you bring your values and morals to the scriptures. Religion has the ability to brainwash individuals as to keep them from thinking rationally. Have you ever seen the documentary "My Brother the Islamist"? You may see Islam and religion differently after seeing what happens when it grabs hold of a normal person and destroys their ability to reason.


Luke said...

> I don't believe that you bring your values and morals to the scriptures.

Keith Ward makes a compelling case that it can go either way and both ways, in one if not both of The Case for Religion and Is Religion Dangerous?. Indeed, it is not infrequent for a given religious group to be progressive for a time, and then turn regressive. For example, see Islamic feminism § Early reforms under Islam:

>> During the early days of Islam in the 7th century CE, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[9] Women were not accorded such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[10] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of women in Arab societies included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood[9] (see Islamic ethics). Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a status but rather as a contract, in which the woman's consent was imperative.[11][12][13] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property"[11][12] (see also Dower). "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[12]

>> Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[14] William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women's rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible – they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[15] Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."[16]

I just love that very few people appear to know about this. I only found out via talking to a young woman who had majored in Middle Eastern studies (perhaps feminism in particular), at an engagement party. Had I not encountered her, I probably wouldn't have known that Islam was a major step forward (at least in some respects) when it was founded. I am aware that this may be the case with Torah law as well; for example Deut 23:15, which prohibited the return of escaped slaves, appears relatively unknown in the Ancient Near East. It was also hilariously ignored by those who passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Some day, I will look for mentions of that verse with respect to the Act.

Luke said...

Oooh, from Antebellum Slavery: An Orthodox Christian View (Google Books):

>> Dr. Charles Hodge wrote an essay on the Fugitive Slave Law in 1836 as it relates to Deuteronomy 23:15:

>>> The thing there forbidden is the restoration of a slave who had fled from a heathen master and taken refuge among the worshippers of the true God. Such a man was not to be forced back into heathenism. This is the obvious meaning and spirit of the ocmmand. That it has no reference to slaves who had escaped from Hebrew masters, and fled from one tribe or city to another, is plain from the simple fact that Hebrew laws recognized slavery. It would be a perfect contradiction if the law authorized the purchace and holding of slaves, and yet forbid the enforcing the right of possession. (97-98)

Note that according to Roger Olson's What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?”, Hodge was a paragon of Calvinism:

>> First of all, who cares what Charles Hodge said about anything? Well, many conservative evangelicals care—whether they know it or not. Charles Hodge was and remains such an influential 19th century theologian that I included an entire chapter on his theology in The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press, 2013). [...]

>> Now, of course, there is no Reformed Protestant “pope” to identify Hodge as the “Angelic Doctor” of Reformed Protestantism (in the same way the Catholic Church has baptized Thomas Aquinas as that—the official or semi-official theologian of Catholic theology). I would argue nevertheless that, given his profound influence on conservative Reformed evangelical theology, Hodge deserves that appellation—official or at least semi-official theologian of American conservative Reformed theology.

IIRC, there is Jewish precedent for interpreting Deut 23:15 in the way that Charles Hodge did, but I'm not sure I care. Nothing keeps that from being a blatant twisting of scripture, just like Hodge likely did, above. He argues that it would be ludicrous to interpret Deut 23:15 in any other way, but is that true? What if slavery were, instead, a voluntary economic institution meant to deal with the kinds of situations which arise in subsistence-based economies, where there was no excess to support anything like a prison system? And so, if you fail to procure enough food to feed yourself and perhaps a family, you can swear to work for another person for up to seven years. Everyone will know that you so-swore. So if you run away without a really good reason, you're likely to be even more screwed, unless you can truly escape your reputation.

But no, Biblical slavery must look the way I insist it looks! It couldn't possibly be that the commands for beating slaves come right after those for beating freemen and use the same language. No, that is impossible: Biblical slavery is evil, I know it, and no amount of evidence could convince me otherwise. </sarcasm>

Ron said...


> Sure, we can expect the Middle East to be comprised of countries that enforce Sharia Law - but so what?

I think you missed the point. The point was not that Sharia is enforced in the middle east, the point is that it is enforced *almost exclusively* in the middle east, despite there being a lot of Muslim countries that are not in the middle east. This is strong evidence (though of course not conclusive proof) that the prevalence of Sharia law has more to do with geography than with what is written in the Quran.

But the bigger point is that AFAICT no one (except me) is even talking about this sort of thing. Data? Who the hell needs data when we have plausible-sounding opinions!

Luke said...

> But the bigger point is that AFAICT no one (except me) is even talking about this sort of thing. Data? Who the hell needs data when we have plausible-sounding opinions!

I love it when people (not you from what I have seen) think that only religious people are susceptible to just-so stories—or that religious people are more susceptible to just-so stories. I've never seen data to establish this, and I've even seen one or two studies about how deeply religious people are less superstitious. I'm reminded of the following, from sociologist Peter Berger's A Far Glory:

>>     Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (30)