The Basis of Sam Harris’ Racism

Sam HarrisI don’t like the label “atheist” because I’m really not. Just the same, I think theism is ridiculous and not really much worth discussing. It is just that when it comes to cosmology I stand with Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As a result, I feel akin to the smarter atheists. I have never noticed that I had a disagreement with Richard Carrier: I agree with him about religion and philosophy. On the other hand, I have major problems with Sam Harris, even though I generally agree with him when it comes to religious matters.

Without a doubt, I most part ways with Dr. Harris when it comes to his hateful campaign against Islam. Look: I have no love for Islam. I normally just group it with the other Abrahamic faiths: belief systems that may have spoken to people hundreds and thousands of years ago but which really have no purpose in the modern world. But if I were to pick one religion that most bothers me, it would be Christianity. I say this even though I have a number of Christian friends. But Christianity is the religion that I know—the religion that as an American, I just can’t escape from. And above all: I feel responsible for it.

In the past, I’ve written about my difficulty being a member of the in-group. And maybe that’s what’s happening. But it seems cowardly to focus all of my anger and concern toward them and not toward us. Today, Glenn Greenwald called Sam Harris to task about this very issue. He wrote, “Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country.” Indeed.

Much of the article is spent discussing whether Harris’ anti-Islam beliefs are racist. Greenwald will not go so far as to say that they are (although he gets as close as you can). I think I have some insight into this. I’m not sure if it is the definition of racism, but it is clearly a primary mechanism by which racism renews itself.

The nature of prejudice is that it accumulates confirming data and dismisses contradictory data. For example, suppose you don’t like Latinos and you are driving your car. If a white guy cuts you off, he is just some asshole who cut you off. If a Latino cuts you off, it is entirely typical of Latinos: they just don’t care! If a Latino stops to allow you to get onto a busy street, well, that’s the exception that proves the rule!

Sadly, this is what has been going on with Sam Harris for at least a decade. And it is easy to see why, especially given the propagandistic tendencies of American media. I see this kind of thing from conservatives generally. Every person they see in the Middle East who is happy about some misfortune that befalls us only proves that all them Islamists just hate us. And no amount of “Sorry people of America this not the behavior of our Islam and profit” signs will change that.

I had thought that Harris was liberalizing his beliefs in recent years, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

6 thoughts on “The Basis of Sam Harris’ Racism

  1. A major point Greenwald is making (or if he didn’t, that has been made by others) is that Harris couches his pre-born prejudices in the cloak of science.

    He uses and abuses science to try to fashion his bigotry and prejudices in an objective manner.

    It’s not just that Harris is a necon. The far more dangerous factor is that he’s trying to bend science (and fellow athiests) to believe that there’s an objective reason to blow up Muslims. And he doesn’t have the balls to own up to this. Instead he politily invokes science to explain why Islam is particularly immoral.

    Harris wants to become a new Science Prophet.

  2. That being cut off in traffic by a member of a group you dislike can make you dislike them even further is a wonderful example. I’ve used a variation of it before, comparing it to how baseball fans like myself can get way too excited when a rookie hits a home run in his first game. That means he’ll hit 162 homers this year! Um, no he won’t. Small sample size.

    Harris seems to suffer from the kind of silliness that would have got him laughed out of my community-college religion class. Dude, before you say this stuff, visit a fucking mosque already. I’ve been to one, only once, (and for that class), where the sermon was about how Islam tells us not to use our money to cheat others out of their money. It was in a fairly poor area, but there were a few business suits in attendance and you could see them visibly squirm. Afterwards, at lunch, I thanked the Imam for his sermon and mentioned the squirming. "We do what we can do," he responded, "and let Allah do the rest." Fair enough. Then we opined on the value of cuteness in wives, at which point the women offered their opinions, negating the whole "boy’s side/girl’s side" thing I found offensive during the service.

    Now — small sample size — that doesn’t mean all Muslims are nice people. (And the boy’s side/girl’s side thing still strikes me as ridiculous.) But it shoots to hell the "cult of death" nonsense Harris and his ilk like to pimp. If Islam was really about that, it would have died off, just as Christianity would have if Christians took seriously Paul’s diatribes against sex. Some loony-tune Muslims are terrorist death cultists, just as some Christians (and a larger proportion, I’d wager) are irreparably damaged sex-haters (we breed out of duty, those who breed out of fun are Sinners.)

    Greenwald is spot-on, as usual. One thing that did bug me, just a teeny bit, about his article; his claim that the limitations of Twitter mean you aren’t responsible for content in links you post. That’s more a problem with Twitter than Greenwald, but it is a problem, and among many reasons I don’t "twit." (Yes, I know the preferred term is "tweet.")

    Finally, back to Harris . . . the professional gloomsayer Chris Hedges recently mentioned that the good folks who justified Iraq War II weren’t just advocates; they were borderline McCarthys, claiming that any of us against the war were traitors, terrorists, lily-livered liberal apologists for fundamentalism, and so forth. And that was their real crime; not voicing their opinions, but misrepresenting the opposition’s.

    I had no doubt that Harris and Hitchens sincerely believed that war with Islam (Iraq was only to be the start) could bring about eradication of a religion they despised (and I’m no fonder of than Bush’s born-again blather). I never wrote to anyone that Harris and Hitchens were duplicitous oil-company agents; I thought Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were, and they played intellectuals like H/H beautifully. Seriously — eradicate Islam? You might as well wage a war to eradicate Christmas presents or Thanksgiving turkeys, for all the success you’d have.

    Anyone serious about reducing the harm done by fundamentalism has to look at the place where fundamentalism has (or had, until recently) its least influence; Europe, where most people are married and buried in church, know all the songs, and that’s about it. Why did this happen? Probably because western Europeans have (had) good wages, high taxes on the rich, a strong social safety net, and therefore little reason to need religion (which is like an abusive family; it has more appeal to broken people.) Imposing some Pinochet-style regime on Iraq was the last thing opponents of fundamentalism should have supported.

    I guess if you hang out long enough with the wrong crowd, you start believing in this "capitalism is the only true force for revolutionary change" ballyhoo. Sad, because when H/H pointed out the shit in their own nests, they tended to be quite skilled at it.

  3. @Hoop – I agree with you except about the world "science." Like most atheists (and libertarians–see my own link in the article to Sam Harris), he claims that he is just "telling it like it is." So I would substitute "rationality" or "rational thought" for "science" above. But otherwise, I’m right with you.

  4. @JMF – As usual, lots to comment on. I don’t understand how Harris can hold Muslims accountable for everything in the Koran, even while he admits that most Christians don’t believe everything in the Bible. Greenwald quotes a great survey of Muslims that (Of course!) destroys Harris’ claims.

    You so have Hedges pegged. I love him but he really depresses me. I mean, I thought that [i]I[/i] was bad. Most writers put a "how we turn this around" at the end of their books. Hedges puts a "We’re all doomed!" at the end of his.

    One thing that bothers me about the Iraq War was that Iraq was one of the least Islamic countries in the region. I remember that Hitchens (For years!) made the argument that Iraq really was a Muslim country because Hussein gave money to the families of suicide bombers. Of course, no one was asking Hitchens about that. He just felt it necessary to bring up, I think, because he knew that his anti-Islam rhetoric against Iraq made no sense. It also pointed out that at base, all of his anti-Islam rhetoric was not about religion; it was good old fashioned racism.

    That’s an interesting take on religion in Europe. I always thought it was the other way around: secularity brings about a more humane society. But you could well be right.

  5. @Hoop — Indeed, Harris has no balls. An honest writer might just say, "listen, I know our side has committed its share of crimes, yet Muslim terrorism scares and offends me deeply, so I hate it more. It might not be rational, but that’s the way I feel." One can agree or disagree with such a sentiment; it doesn’t present itself as anything more than one person’s opinion. Harris is a skilled writer; he could frame his opinions AS opinions and not pretend they’re the only rational point of view. I guess that approach doesn’t appeal to him.

    @Frank (or "Mr.F.") — I haven’t read much or given much thought as to whether secularism breeds humane societies or vice-versa. One case study coming off the top of my head, however — the USSR. Officially atheist, it was a very inhumane society and therefore passionate belief in the Orthodox church remained stronger there than during Western Europe during the same period. I think countries like Sweden and Denmark still have church-anointed kings, although the average Swede or Dane knows the names of more US presidents than their own church-anointed kings.

    In our own country, it’s harder to trace which and what. Portland and New York City are very atheist, very high income-disparity places (and the poorer people are more likely to be churchgoers.) In Minnesota, things are changing for the worse, but there’s still an urban core that respects unions and doesn’t worship money. It has the trappings of religion, but in a painless fashion.

    You’ll never get Minnesotans to stop their Lenten Friday church-basement fish-fry gatherings. It’s just a cultural thing. Guess what . . . I enjoy them! They’re just raffle tickets and food and old-timey music performed by locals, you wouldn’t even know God existed if it wasn’t for being in a church. Hell, the volunteer staff are often flaming queens, and the churches put very visible rainbow symbols on their websites and mention how "all are welcome."

    Now, get out into the suburbs, where rich people hates them those taxes, or out into the farm zone, where poor people hates them those gummint employees, and Friday fish-frys are a different beast. Complete with sermons and strangers asking you when you came to know Jesus.

    Once again: small sample size, I’m extrapolating from a few experiences/examples. On that limited basis, though, I’d say it’s entirely possible to retain the cultural heritage side of religion, which is very important to most people, without the political day-to-day influence of Bronze Age teachings. Keeping religion firmly in the realm of wondering "what happens when we die, and why do we exist?" Exactly where it belongs.

    To do this, we need to eliminate religion’s appeal as a gambler’s "system." You know the type? The guy who always bets on a horse with two white spots on alternate Tuesdays because they never lose (and, when they invariably do, claims it’s only because you who didn’t believe mucked up his mojo)? Too much religious appeal these days isn’t to questions of the infinite, but literal wishes that if I say these words and hate butt sex and support leaders who profess the same superstitions, God will rain showers of blessings upon my head.

    This is incredibly juvenile thinking — not in its statistical unlikelihood of happening, which can’t be strictly proven, but in its selfishness. Grownups should be a bit more concerned with the well-being of those around them. (Not completely so, none of us are saints, thank God, but at a higher level than we were when we were 12.) Hoping that sucking up to a cosmic bully (by shitting on those who don’t) will benefit you is very childish.

    And, to take it back to Harris — isn’t that exactly what he’s up to? If he was advocating a mind-control ray that eliminated religion with no harmful side effects, fine. He was pimping war, for Chrissakes! Not very advanced thinking, in my book.

    (As to your original response; nope, I don’t know what comes first, the secular chicken or humane social system egg. Just thought I’d reiterate that!)

  6. @JMF – The problem with looking at different parts of the country is that the rich can easily move. This is why we must turn to the federal government to make taxes progressive. State taxes tend to be fairly flat or worse. (Of course, there is [i]no[/i] reason for the ridiculously regressive payroll tax.)

    I suspect that secularity and liberal social policy feedback on each other. And that might explain why were are so fucking religious with really fucked social policy as opposed to Europe.

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