Sam Harris on the Freedom to Criticize Religious Beliefs

Sam Harris‘ latest piece, “On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God,” has only been up for a few hours, but it’s spreading fast (and crashing his servers, apparently).

In it, he denounces those who stress “religious sensitivity” to Muslims in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video instead of full-blown support for free speech:

What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

It would be great if moderate Muslims could find a way to actively and effectively promote the notion that religious freedom matters, or openly support everyone’s right to say “Islam is wrong,” or accept that the proper response to criticism is not violence or anger but evidence showing they’re right, something the radicals never care to offer.

In countries where dissent is stifled or met with a bloody ending, you’re not going to hear those voices. I’m not surprised we rarely hear opposition from people in the Middle East. I don’t blame them.

But what about America? Few Muslim organizations comes to the defense of free speech in the event of their faith being criticized (I don’t know of any, actually, but surely there are a few out there). They’ll denounce the violence, sure, but they rarely affirm the right of others to criticize their faith. And how often do you hear Muslim leaders admit that their holy book promotes violence against “infidels”?

Then, after a blistering attack on Mitt Romney‘s Mormonism, Harris contemplates how Islam isn’t a strong enough faith to withstand such criticism:

… The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable — not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.

(Forget musical. You can’t even set the Koran to music.)

On a side note, I like how Harris uses sports as a metaphor for religion — just as all sports are not the same, all religions are not the same. Some of them are more violent, more verifiably untrue, and more dehumanizing. It’s time we started to recognize that.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • C Peterson

    I have to agree. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing ideas or people you think are bad… and Islam is a bad idea, and Mohamed was a pretty disgusting person by modern standards. The right to criticize, even to be deliberately provocative or offensive, is pretty near absolute in the civilized world.

    I guess I don’t really mind all the extremist violence, since it is largely serving to further marginalize an entire culture that should be marginalized.

    • The Other Weirdo

      The right to criticize, even to be deliberately provocative or offensive, is pretty near absolute in the civilized world.

      No, it isn’t. There is a slew of anti-blasphemy laws across Europe. Even Russia’s getting in on that act, in an effort to prop up the Russian Orthodox Church. I don’t know about Australia, though. India, too, has those laws as well. China, of course, too, but they”re meant to protect another religion: state Communism.

      • C Peterson

        I said “near” absolute, and I said “civilized”. I’ll stick by my assertion.

  • Grizzz

    Harris is DEAD ON.

    In fact, it goes even further; take the current example of criticism of A+ and PZ and Adam Lees’ rush to censor and call for absolute bans on those who dare speak against it or express distaste with their group or even the ideas the group espouses. 

    One of the greatest things in the USA is the Constitution. And in that document there is the First Amendment. All too often there is a rallying cry to censor/restrict and silence those who are not up to the listener’s standards. BULLSHIT.

    You know what – here – Mohammed was a fucked up ass-muncher. Mohammed molests goats and border collies. FUCK MOHAMMED IN THE EAR. If I could figure out how to post a picture here, I would draw a nasty cartoon of Mohammed.

    The Onion had that fantastic cartoon of Yahweh, Jesus, Ganesh and Buddha all enjoying a big ol’ orgy with each other and I do not remember hearing of any death threat or murder as a result.

    We cannot cave to violence when the First Amendment is one of the few things that stand out in the USA.

    FREE SPEECH ESPECIALLY when things are repugnant or difficult for us to hear.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Uploading a picture is easy. Just click the image button. That is Lada Gaga after she packed on 30 pounds. She has some thick thighs now. Image button is on the bottom left when you first post.

      • Grizzz

        Ugghhh…Thanks, now I have to go pour bleach in my eyes after seeing that horrific image of that skankity skank skankbag Lady Gaga……you just cannot unsee something no matter how hard you try.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

          Glad I could help.

        • RetweetLister

          You have insulted Lady Gaga! Quick, someone burn down a Domino’s and behead Robin Williams! 

  • Richard Wigton

     Sam Harris hit the nail on the head.  We should not be apologizing for that idiotic video nor should we be trying to soothe the fervid brow of the “offended” Muslims. Some morons made an offensive video about Islam–so what? Get over it . They had every right to make it. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.
      There is a meme in this country that says no one should criticize someone elses religion. To do so is bigoted. But, as Harris pointed out, some religions have some really terrible  ideas that they promote and sane, decent people need to say, “No, that’s bullshit & I don’t care what your holy book says!”  We need to be able to tell people that what their religion teaches is stupid.  And that is not being arrogant. That is simply telling it like it is. If you believe contraceptives are evil & should be banned that is stupid. If you believe that killing someone who questions/mocks your religion is ok that is stupid.  I could go on and on.  
       There should be no person or  religion that is beyond criticism. Freedom demands that everyone and everything should be open to scrutiny and examination. There are no “sacred cows.”   

  • Sven

    I agree in principle, but it could have been worded better.  Burning books comes with some unpleasant historical connotations…

    • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

      Its true the idea of book burning isn’t exactly good, the symbolic or literal destruction of knowledge isn’t something to be taken lightly.

      And while I’d be upset at someone burning a copy of my favourite book – particularly if its a rare, one of a kind, copy – I’m also not going to gather a rabid mob, engage in mass property damage, and kill a bunch of people over it either.

    • Grizzz

      yes it does, but that is not a reason to prevent books from being burned.

      • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

        Burning books releases greenhouse gases.

        Can we agree to shred the books, and compost the shreds?

        • brianmacker

          That releases greenhouse gases also.

          • DavidMHart

             I guess the greenest thing is to download the book onto a flash drive, and then ceremoniously delete the file. You can do that again and again and again with the same flash drive.

    • Ryan S

      Yeah but there are millions of copies (including online) of our modern “holy” books.  Burning one symbolically is absolutely harmless and is not about eliminating access to the book by the general public.

    • brianmacker

      Burning books you don’t own has bad connotations. There’s nothing wrong with burning books you bought and paid for.

  • John_in_Vegas

    I have been saying for years that religious ideas must be aggressively denounced without any apologies when they contradict science and biology, when they promote bigotry and harmful policies or when they just don’t make any sense. I have always advocated for respect for religious people, but not always their ideas. When creationism and anti-gay bullying are given an exemption from reason because of a religious belief, that’s where I draw the line.

    • ReadsInTrees

      Isn’t it strange how the people who rail the most against “progressive political correctness” and how they’re so sick of people being offended…..get very sensitive when someone says something less than kind about their religion. I mean, I have a science fish on my car (Jesus fish with rocket fins and the word SCIENCE) and someone said that it might be offensive to Christians. So what? 

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I actually heard a major news show interviewing their middle east expert and asking which was more deserving of condemnation: the movie’s intentional insult to religion (Islam) or the violence that the insult provoked. 

    I thought, well that’s an easy answer: more deserving of the condemnation is the violence. 

    But the expert answered that BOTH are worthy of condemnation, without distinguishing that the violence/murder was far far far worse. 

    What the hell are people thinking here? 

    • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

      There’s a guy named Bryan Suits who is a talk show host and a member of the National Guard.  He has served in Bosnia and two tours in Iraq.  He says that if an Iraqi or Afghani is killed, the Americans will remove any affects.  Often these soldiers carry copies of the Koran.  The families are always very interested in having the Koran returned, and much less interested in the fact that their family member has been killed.

      http://www.facebook.com/darksecret.place 
      http://www.kfiam640.com/cc-common/podcast/single_page.html?podcast=DarkSecretPlace 

    • brianmacker

      The movie deserved no condemnation since where factual it was acting as documentary and where not as parody, mockery, satire or spoof. All are commendable literary and cinematic traditions.

  • Ned Ludd

    I too agree that burning a book has bad connotations, at least since the Christians burned the great library of Alexandria and tortured and murdered Hypathia, its last conservator. Imagine if its tens of thousands of volumes still existed.  In the 18th century, the king of France publicly burned the books of Baron d’Holbach, considered the 1st modern atheist. 

    Then we have the mass Hitlerian book burnings. Christians took that up and publicly burned Beatles records and still continue with other music groups.

    However, I have no objection to printing the Koran(in Arabic SVP) or the Bible on toilet paper.  I would even gift wrap it for Christian and Muslim acquaintances. They probably prefer rough scratchy paper, which  should be pretty cheap.

  • ReadsInTrees

    To be fair, how often do we hear Christians affirming the rights of others to criticize the Christian faith? 

    • RetweetLister

      They argue, sure (Well, they try to anyway). They’ll also ostracize you quick once they find out you’re really, truly not interested in becoming “born again.” But I haven’t seen any of them murdering others over criticism. 

      Educate me please, in case I just missed such a case in the news.

      • ReadsInTrees

        Islam today is where Christianity was during the Middle Ages. They burned plenty of heretics then. Same thing, different time period, that’s all.

        • RetweetLister

          Okay, yes, point made. I’m not out here to defend Christianity. I too would appreciate it, were more Christians willing to own their church’s past. Perhaps I should’ve been clearer in my comment.  

          But, even with acknowledgement of how they treated heretics, compared to Islam, Christianity is relatively benign these days. Even today, there is no room for reform within Islam. No “thought” is allowed. No questioning is allowed. At least Christianity had the reformation period (again I will acknowledge how bloody the reformation really was. You got me there.). 

          But Islam is a particularly scary religion. Modern Islam is more violent than modern Christianity. Does that mean that, were Christianity to regain the power it once had, it wouldn’t be just as bad? Hard to say. 

          Our job as secularists is to challenge all religious mythologies. My experience with Christians is that many of them are beginning to admit the bible really is nothing more than a collection of old fables, filled with flaws and contradictions. And then they had me over for dinner and remain friends of mine today.

          Try saying anything so critical of the Koran, Muhammed (Place bacon upon him) or Islam with a Muslim. I have. I met nothing more than immature, primitive, ridiculous anger.

    • brianmacker

      All the time. What planet do you live on?

  • Baal

    “And how often do you hear Muslim leaders admit that their holy book promotes violence against “infidels”?”

    Rhetorical but;

    About as often as christian’s acknowledge that god likes to commit genocide now and then.

    • brianmacker

      I have plenty of Christian friends who do just that.

  • http://pramod.myid.net/ pramod

    I’m really disappointed by this post Hemant. The reason muslims are so angry are many and varied. It doesn’t boil down to them simply being less “civilized” than westerners.

    They are certainly poorer and less educated, a significant part of which is caused by western imperialism and colonialism. If you ignore all this and just pretend that “we’re better coz we’re obviously so much more civilized” and completely fail to see all the ways in which the west has harmed and continues to harm the rest of the world, you’re being either ignorant or naive.

    • Ryan Bauer

      Where do you see that Hemant called the Muslim world “less civilized”? Here’s what he said:


      In countries where dissent is stifled or met with a bloody ending, you’re not going to hear those voices. I’m not surprised we rarely hear opposition from people in the Middle East. I don’t blame them.”

      • http://pramod.myid.net/ pramod

         “Some of them are more violent, more verifiably untrue, and more dehumanizing.”

        Who do you think he’s referring to?

        • DavidMHart

           Wrong question. You should have asked “What do you think he’s referring to” – because the answer is earlier in the same sentence: religions. Some religions are more violent, more verifiably untrue and more dehumanising. Not persons (although, technically, he should have said “more violence-promoting”, since you kind of have to be a person to be violent, but it doesn’t even make sense to call persons “verifiably untrue” or “dehumanising” – he’s clearly talking about sets of ideas here).

    • brianmacker

      Islam is an imperialist religion and colonized the west first so they can’t be upset about that. Well only if they are hypocrites.

    • brianmacker

      That was an ignorant and naive statement on your part. Where did you get your education, because they forgot to give you the whole truth?

    • Grizzz

      pramod, their reasons may be wide and varied, but their actions are still vile, evil, over the top and unjustified. So really, I don’t give tow shits about their reasons.

      Facts are, Islam and its adherents are fucked in the head.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    I disagree with Harris on one point.  Well, maybe two.

    First, I don’t think wanting to know who made the film is obscene.  I do, as an American, have the right to look down my nose at the stupidity of others, and I feel more comfortable doing so when I can name the others.  

    I also think that we have the right to know other aspects of the story.  The director originally claimed that he was an Israeli Jew, and that he had collected over $5 million from American Jews to fund the movie.  If that were true, having seen the quality of the movie, I would think he might be perpetrating a fraud.  It turns out, however, that he was most likely lying.  The movie probably cost pretty much what you’d expect something of that quality to cost.  Further the director is a Christian Egyptian.  Was claiming the involvement of American Jews and Israelis an attempt to further inflame anti-Israeli feelings in the Middle East?

    For the safety of those who participated in the production, I hope the information that they did not know that they were making a film about the life of Mohammed is spread far and wide.  It is obvious that in many places the dialog was dubbed.  I hope that no one decides to martyr himself to “bring them to justice.”

    I am not saying Nakoula/Bacille should be punished.  But I am saying I have the right to hold him up to ridicule.

    And for my second point, what the hell is wrong with rhythmic gymnastics?

    • brianmacker

      So what is your name?

    • brianmacker

      If homosexuality carried the death penalty in the US like it does in Iran then it would be easy to argue that engaging in such activity would be “stupid”. Would you then insist on knowing the names of all homosexuals in both countries so you could be more comfortable looking down your nose at them?

  • yohocoma

    Harris:  … The point, however, is that I can say all these things about
    Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without
    fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this
    distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril.

    And not coincidentally, Mormons haven’t suffered many years of multiple, brutal aggressive campaigns at the hands of the most highly-armed nation in the world, the United States, and its client state which violently occupied land at the center of the Muslim world a century ago.  In fact, other than being a (well-deserved) butt of our national humor, Mormons are allowed to live their lives in peace, without having their leaders overthrown by Western countries, without having their territory invaded, without having millions of their people slaughtered and injured in the name of geopolitical advantage or the oil under their lands.  We even let them have a whole state and parts of several others.

    Context, Hemant, context. As for Harris, I respect a lot of his writing, but his incessant demonizing focus on the Muslim world likewise lacks incredibly important context. It’s surprising for such a thoughtful writer, but sadly it’s symptomatic of the heavy propagandization about the Muslim world that Americans are constantly subject to. With regard to that, Hemant, you’re part of the problem.

  • Manoj Joseph

    While I agree with Harris about the right to “criticize Muhammad or any other human being”, I disagree with him when he says “the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle”.
    I say more here:
    http://manojpontificates.blogspot.com/2012/09/a-response-to-sam-harris.html


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