Thoughts on why Mr. Spencer doesn’t deserve to be debated

I had an exchange with with a fan of Robert Spencer that touches on some of the reasons why a debate with him would be a waste of time, not to mention a kind of recognition of which a strident ideologue like him is undeserving.

The sub-caption of "What's Wrong with the World" reads "Dispatches from the 10th Crusade" and  the conservative Christian group blog declares itself "dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom…[against] the Jihad and Liberalism," so it's not likely to be a very receptive crowd to my perspectives–though they might be surprised to know that I share some of their regrets about the eclipse of Christianity in Western life, however often this cause gets co-opted by the very worst of scoundrels today–but I figured I'd respond to Ms. McGrew's comments on my, as she put it, "pointless bloviation" on Spencer's scholarly shortcomings, mainly to document a few of my reasons for ignoring Mr. Spencer's challenge for those who care to know.

Curiously, my final message was blocked. The first comment and then my second one (a response to her reaction to the former) were both posted automatically, yet the last was automatically moderated and has yet to see the light of  day.

She has clearly been actively monitoring her blog since then, as she's replied at least three times to the large number of comments posted since my offending comment was submitted. And it seems unlikely that she suddenly changed her policy two days ago and made all comments moderated–which would mean that she's individually approved 60 or so messages in 48 hours, yet not gotten around to approving my comment (which was  respectful, pertinent, and no longer than many of left unmolested on her blog)–so I can't help but conclude that she's blocking me personally, presumably to prevent any more criticism of Mr. Spencer to grace her blog's otherwise lively comments.

For my part, I don't screen comments on my blog except for in exceptional cases, but I realize commenting on a blog is always a privilege–one that I don't think a reasonable person could conclude I've abused–and I don't begrudge Ms. McGrew's right to the last word.

Still, it seems to me that she cut the exchange rather short, and after after she'd upped the ante rhetorically. It's rather curious approach to debate from a person who freely called me out by name and who, I presume, opposes the ALA's handling of Spencergate as a betrayal of free speech. So much for defending open debate.

Anyway, below is the exchange, including the comment that Ms. McGrew appears to find too challenging for comfort. I'm sharing the exchange because it explains some of my reasons for ignoring Mr. Spencer's demand to answer his loaded questions about Islamic law and because it touches on a neglected aspect to these trite, post-9/11 debates over Islam.

"Robert Spencer's Excellent answer to fact-free criticism" (What's Wrong with the World)

I am a huge fan of Robert Spencer. One of the reasons I am such a huge fan is that Spencer deals in details and facts. I could not possibly begin to summarize all the information he presents about Islam and what is going on in the world with Islam these days. One of the best things about Spencer is that he gives information both from the scholarly point of view of Islamic jurisprudence and holy texts and from the current events point of view of what Muslims are right now taking these texts to mean and how they are acting on them.

This is a double-whammy, and to my mind it should render speechless all the "religion of peace" promoters. I ask my readers' indulgence, as I certainly intend no blasphemy, but it seems to me that the liberals' (and some "conservatives'") view of Islam is a sort of unholy, secular version of the Catholic view of the Blessed Sacrament: Even if all the visible accidents of Islam are violent, by faith the liberal believes in an underlying substance or essence that is peaceful.

Today Spencer takes on another of his fact-free critics, one Svend White, who says that Spencer is wrong, wrong, wrong about Islam but cannot descend to give any evidence for the assertion. So Spencer calls his bluff:
The answer Spencer gets from White is an exercise in pointless bloviation. [...]

[etc. etc.]

A number of of mostly supporting comments precede the exchange.

 Posted by svend | July 21, 2009 2:30 PM

Or perhaps Mr. Spencer is undeserving of the dignity of a response. Perhaps there's a reason he's ignored by scholars. And perhaps there is indeed a persistent conceptual failing that makes many of his specific points misleading.

I imagine you don't feel obligated to respond to every atheist crank who denigrates Christianity with long lists of decontextualized facts or distortions of the Bible. There's little point in debating bigots or propagandists in most cases.

And then there's a difference between data and information. A thousand footnoted facts don't shed any new light if the person presenting them hasn't a clue where they fit into the bigger picture, much less if he or she is committed to casting them in the worst possible light.

I don't deny that there are grave problems in the Muslim world and that there are aspects of Islamic tradition that need to change with the times. But good luck understanding them (much less figuring out what to do about them) with somebody like Spencer as your guide.

Posted by Lydia | July 21, 2009 3:37 PM

Spencer as the analogue of an atheist crank. Hmmm. Actually, most atheist cranks have been answered already. But I would also note that most of them, you know, make false claims. That's usually part of being an atheist crank, is getting your facts wrong or deliberately misleading your audience. No need for woolly talk about "missing context" and the like.

Posted by svend | July 21, 2009 4:51 PM

An interesting point, but I think your definition needs to be updated with the times. In Information Age propaganda, only rank amateurs lie outright. While I may not find them compelling there certainly are critiques of the Bible and organized religion in general that many would find intellectually credible, factually grounded and still awaiting adequate response. And I see nothing "woolly" about expecting that context be explored. To the contrary, it seems to me a sine qua non of scholarship, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Thanks.

Posted by Lydia | July 21, 2009 5:34 PM

 many would find intellectually credible, factually grounded

What "many would find" and what is in fact the case are two different things. And I was, definitely, talking about information age propaganda.

No good apologist would simply say that, say, Richard Carrier is a poor advocate of atheism because he is missing the "whole context of Christianity" or something vague like that. There are so many better and more eviscerating points to make about someone like Carrier, so many more ways to fisk him.

Any critic of Robert Spencer, on the other hand, who just goes on talking about "the context of Islam" without deigning to get more specific and tell us how Spencer is _wrong_ is inevitably going to look like he's waving his hands. I'm sorry if that's suggesting, Mr. White, that you need to do more work than you think you should have to do to convince us poor, misled readers of Spencer that he's all wet, but that's the way it is. You give very much the impression of the people selling the emperor a set of new clothes.

posted by svend | July 22, 2009 around noon (BLOCKED BY ADMINISTRATOR)

I understand your objection and frankly consider it understandable under the circumstances [by which I meant her assessment of Spencer and the geopolitical backdrop of his commentary --Svend]. However, that fact doesn't free me up from the responsibilities of daily life to go through his work with a fine-tooth comb, nor does it make it any less dreary and unrewarding a task for me.

I'm reminded of the laments of astronomers who debunk conspiracy theories about the moon landings of the 1960s. Effective propaganda or pseudo-scholarship–or, to put it another way, any large set of complex, interrelated misconceptions–is devilishly time-consuming to refute, and those who take the time to do so usually aren't guaranteed enough attention from those under its spell for it to be worth the effort.

So I don't expect you to take my word for it. You don't know me from Adam, and I'm not some famous writer. My hope is simply that you will keep in mind the possibility that Spencer's presentation could be distorted in important respects and try to get a second opinion on the things that matter. Even if Islamic tradition and Muslim history are indeed as dismal as Spencer makes them out to be, in conflict-ridden times such as these any thoughtful observer committed to the truth should be on the lookout for bias in discussions of Islam (even if it's only to more effectively understand your "enemy").

If you’re interested in sources that I think could offer useful correctives to what I consider to be Spencer’s oversights, for starters I’d recommend Richard Bulliet’s THE CASE FOR ISLAMO-CHRISTIAN CIVILIZATION and John Kelsay’s ARGUING THE JUST WAR IN ISLAM. (Few reviews that give you useful overview of either work are available online, but here are two: , )

P.S. Speaking of atheists, if not cranks, I happen to be reading George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God at the moment and recommend it for the philosophically inclined, however much I disagree with its conclusions.

Too many religious apologists–be they be Muslim, Christian or what have you–overlook how epistemologically shaky many of their arguments are from a strictly logical standpoint. I find this classic of atheist thought a healthy reminder of the limits of purely intellectual proofs in matters of faith, not to mention of the fact that many atheists have very serious and indeed moral arguments for their positions.

Update (2009-08-09): All the posts on Robert Spencer/Jihad Watch exchange are available on a single page here.

  • Saqib Hussain

    AA, Br Svend.
    I seem to recall that you suggested, some time ago, that there be a wiki devoted to deconstructing Islamophobic narratives; perhaps dealing with the likes of Spencer would be easier if Muslims were able to pool their resources through some such means?
    Regarding your postscript, I can’t say I’m particularly familiar with the philosophical debate around the existence of God, but I would like to think (perhaps this is naive or philistinical) that theologians could put up a highly convincing defence of faith, and of faith in God in particular, on purely rational grounds; I’d certainly find it disturbing if that were not the case. Keith Ward, for example, comes to mind as someone who (from my very limited perspective), seems to give atheism a serious philosophocal response; links below (apologies if you’re already familiar with these):

  • svend

    Salaams, Saqib
    I agree with you (and I recently read Ward’s IS RELIGION DANGEROUS), but only up to a point. While I don’t want to imply that the cases are epistemologically identical for Muslims and Christians, I am very “Kierkegaardian” regarding theological truth claims. As a Muslim, I may feel that the proverbial leap of faith is a little shorter in the case of Islam thanks to the absence of the Trinity or Resurrection in Islamic theology, but logic or empirical evidence in themselves can only get you so far on the path to faith. At most, they can remove obstacles; they don’t inspire the heart.
    I think atheists have a point when they charge that organized religionists ultimately rely on premises that essentially beg the question (i.e., the Prime Mover argument for a Supreme Being on the basis of cosmology and the laws of causation isn’t a killer argument given that it solves the paradox with new paradox, namely an uncreated Creator–Is an eternal, uncreated world any less logical from from within our time- and causality-bound perspective than an uncaused First Cause?).
    And so do atheists when you dig deep enough. These worldviews are incommensurable. And that’s okay as far as I am concerned.
    All ultimate belief systems rely on deeply subjective evidence that isn’t subject to independent verification.
    From a theological perspective, I see this as an unsuprising facet of existence in an imperfect (or, in Christian terms, “fallen”) world. If one religion were able to win the argument conclusively, spirituality would be reduced to a dry exercise in logic, and faith would be worth little (in fact, it would be coerced, motivated by self-interest if not fear, without any change in the heart).

  • svend

    Thanks for those links. Those podcasts look very promising.

  • svend

    re: the Wiki
    Something was set up, though it wasn’t a Wiki (which puts a limit on its likely effectiveness, I think). I’m trying to remember the URL.
    Keep in mind, though, that there are useful sites out there with solid rebuttals to a lot of attacks and misconceptions. Many of them respond to attacks by Christian cyber missionaries (e.g., I am not up on the state of Islamic apologetic online, but I suspect there are no handy “one stop shop” resources yet.

  • svend

    Incidentally, given how ugly some of these debates get and how long its been since I paid attention to these endless battles, I should note that I do not mean to endorse any particular site.
    Having said that, there’s a lot of unfair, ahistorical criticism of Islam being lobbed around these days, and responses are needed. It’s hard work.

  • Kashif G.

    I recently wrote a paper dismantling Stephen Coughlin’s ridiculous exegetical claims that Islam is ‘inherently’ violent. I’d like to send it to you if possible.