Sam Harris with a great article about Malala Yousafzai and religious moderation.

Sam Harris has published an article about the attacks on Malala Yousafzai and similar acts of violence.  It’s a great piece, but one section stood out to me that I wanted to share.  It was when Sam talks about the reaction of religious moderates to the atrocities catalyzed by religious belief:

Here is my pick for the most terrifying and depressing phenomenon on earth: A smart, capable, compassionate, and honorable person grows infected with ludicrous ideas about a holy book and a waiting paradise, and then becomes capable of murdering innocent people—even children—while in a state of religious ecstasy. Needless to say, this problem is rendered all the more terrifying and depressing because so many of us deny that it even exists.

To imagine that one is a holy warrior bound for Paradise might seem delusional, but we live in a world where perfectly sane people are led to believe such floridly crazy things in the name of religion. This is primarily a social and cultural issue, not a psychological one. There is no clear line between what members of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and al Shabab believe about Islam and the “true” Islam. In fact, these groups have as good a claim as any to being impeccable Muslims. This presents an enormous threat to civil society, which apologists for Islam and secular liberals can now be counted upon to obfuscate. A tsunami of stupidity and violence is breaking simultaneously on a hundred shores, and people like Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Juan Cole, John Esposito, and Glenn Greenwald insist that it’s a beautiful day at the beach. Their determination that “moderate” Islam not be blamed for the acts of “extremists” causes them to deny that genuine (and theologically justifiable) religious beliefs can inspire psychologically normal people to commit horrific acts of violence.

Bingo.  Also this:

Take a moment to consider the actions of the Taliban gunman who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. How is it that this man came to board a school bus with the intention of murdering a 15-year-old girl? Absent ideology, this could have only been the work of a psychotic or a psychopath. Given the requisite beliefs, however, an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam. No doubt the assassin who tried to kill her believed that he was doing God’s work. He was probably a perfectly normal man—perhaps even a father himself—and that is what is so disturbing. In response to Malala’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Taliban spokesman had this to say:

Malala Yousafzai targeted and criticized Islam. She was against Islam and we tried to kill her, and if we get a chance again we will definitely try to kill her, and we will feel proud killing her.

The fact that otherwise normal people can be infected by destructive religious beliefs is crucial to understand—because beliefs spread. Until moderate Muslims and secular liberals stop misplacing the blame for this evil, they will remain part of the problem.

Once you accept the very obvious idea that not all religious beliefs are moral or beneficial, it has become time to stop making apologies for people who engage in monstrous behavior on account of religious beliefs as if a religion could never compel someone to wickedness.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Grady

    As if atheism could never compel someone to wickedness because we know that mass murder of Christians because an atheist thought the could eliminate Christianity would not really be because of atheism.

    No True Atheist.

    • baal

      But we’re not seeing atheist gun men get on school buses and shot believers in the head. We did hear rumors that one of the Columbine shooters did that but pretty much every atheist said we don’t agree with using violence. The difference is that the taliban gunman was following the direction of a religious group and not a ‘lone wolf’.

      Did you have a specific case in mind where some guy shouted, “there are no gods!!!!” and then proceeded to massacre a temple or church?

      Otherwise, your “no true atheist” comment sounds like so much of the anti-atheist complaints, a word substitution on valid complaints against religionists.

      • Grady

        Trotsky ordered exactly that in the old Soviet Union.

        He even took the trouble to say in his last testament ( that he acted as a “convinced atheist”.

        Face it. Deal with.

        • baal

          Links to the massacres please. I’m far from a Trotsky expert. Also distinguish whether or not the killings were in the name of atheism or marxism or done to stuff the leninists.

        • Loqi

          I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at here. “X person was an atheist.” Uh…k…what does that show, exactly? That atheists can be bad people? Nobody was arguing the opposite. You’re doing the debate equivalent of shadow boxing here.

        • Bear Millotts

          So when we say “religion inspires people to violence,” you completely ignore the point that religion inspires people to violence and refuse to address it AT ALL. Why don’t you?

          So, instead of discussing the topic at hand (religion inspiring people to violence), you counter with “nya, nya, nya, atheism inspires people to violence, too!”

          Your childish school-yard argument boils down to “I know you are, but what am I?”

          Quite frankly, it’s a sh!t argument.

          Why don’t you stay on topic and admit that it is true: religion inspires people to violence.

    • Loqi

      You don’t seem to understand what a No True Scotsman is. A No True Scotsman would be if we said such a person isn’t an atheist because an atheist would never do something like that. Nobody claims such a thing. Nobody says that being an atheist makes one incapable of doing bad things (in fact, JT specified that right in this post).

      • islandbrewer

        He doesn’t seem to know what a concise and clear sentence structure is, either.

        • baal

          Seemed cromulent to me. It’s only 2.5 rows long and not parseable.

    • Bear Millotts

      Kill People Who Don’t Listen to Priests
      Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT)

      Kill Witches
      You should not let a sorceress live. (Exodus 22:17 NAB)

      Kill Homosexuals
      “If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.” (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

      Kill Fortunetellers
      A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning; they have no one but themselves to blame for their death. (Leviticus 20:27 NAB)

      Death for Hitting Dad
      Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 NAB)

      Death for Cursing Parents
      1) If one curses his father or mother, his lamp will go out at the coming of darkness. (Proverbs 20:20 NAB)
      2) All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense. (Leviticus 20:9 NLT)

      Death for Adultery
      If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NLT)

      Death for Fornication
      A priest’s daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NAB)

      Death to Followers of Other Religions
      Whoever sacrifices to any god, except the Lord alone, shall be doomed. (Exodus 22:19 NAB)

      Kill Nonbelievers
      They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:12-13 NAB)

      Kill False Prophets
      If a man still prophesies, his parents, father and mother, shall say to him, “You shall not live, because you have spoken a lie in the name of the Lord.” When he prophesies, his parents, father and mother, shall thrust him through. (Zechariah 13:3 NAB)

      Kill the Entire Town if One Person Worships Another God
      Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction. Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you. He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors. “The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him.” (Deuteronomy 13:13-19 NLT)

      Kill Women Who Are Not Virgins On Their Wedding Night
      But if this charge is true (that she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night), and evidence of the girls virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her fathers house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NAB)

      Kill Followers of Other Religions.
      1) If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. And all Israel, hearing of this, shall fear and never do such evil as this in your midst. (Deuteronomy 13:7-12 NAB)

      2) Suppose a man or woman among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, has done evil in the sight of the LORD your God and has violated the covenant by serving other gods or by worshiping the sun, the moon, or any of the forces of heaven, which I have strictly forbidden. When you hear about it, investigate the matter thoroughly. If it is true that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then that man or woman must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 17:2-5 NLT)

      Death for Blasphemy
      One day a man who had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father got into a fight with one of the Israelite men. During the fight, this son of an Israelite woman blasphemed the LORD’s name. So the man was brought to Moses for judgment. His mother’s name was Shelomith. She was the daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan. They put the man in custody until the LORD’s will in the matter should become clear. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and tell all those who heard him to lay their hands on his head. Then let the entire community stone him to death. Say to the people of Israel: Those who blaspheme God will suffer the consequences of their guilt and be punished. Anyone who blasphemes the LORD’s name must be stoned to death by the whole community of Israel. Any Israelite or foreigner among you who blasphemes the LORD’s name will surely die. (Leviticus 24:10-16 NLT)

      Kill False Prophets
      1) Suppose there are prophets among you, or those who have dreams about the future, and they promise you signs or miracles, and the predicted signs or miracles take place. If the prophets then say, ‘Come, let us worship the gods of foreign nations,’ do not listen to them. The LORD your God is testing you to see if you love him with all your heart and soul. Serve only the LORD your God and fear him alone. Obey his commands, listen to his voice, and cling to him. The false prophets or dreamers who try to lead you astray must be put to death, for they encourage rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery in the land of Egypt. Since they try to keep you from following the LORD your God, you must execute them to remove the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5 NLT)

      2) But any prophet who claims to give a message from another god or who falsely claims to speak for me must die.’ You may wonder, ‘How will we know whether the prophecy is from the LORD or not?’ If the prophet predicts something in the LORD’s name and it does not happen, the LORD did not give the message. That prophet has spoken on his own and need not be feared. (Deuteronomy 18:20-22 NLT)

      Infidels and Gays Should Die
      So God let them go ahead and do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. Instead of believing what they knew was the truth about God, they deliberately chose to believe lies. So they worshiped the things God made but not the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever. Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relationships with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men and, as a result, suffered within themselves the penalty they so richly deserved. When they refused to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their evil minds and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, fighting, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They are forever inventing new ways of sinning and are disobedient to their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, and are heartless and unforgiving. They are fully aware of God’s death penalty for those who do these things, yet they go right ahead and do them anyway. And, worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. (Romans 1:24-32 NLT)

      Kill Anyone who Approaches the Tabernacle
      For the LORD had said to Moses, ‘Exempt the tribe of Levi from the census; do not include them when you count the rest of the Israelites. You must put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Covenant, along with its furnishings and equipment. They must carry the Tabernacle and its equipment as you travel, and they must care for it and camp around it. Whenever the Tabernacle is moved, the Levites will take it down and set it up again. Anyone else who goes too near the Tabernacle will be executed.’ (Numbers 1:48-51 NLT)

      Kill People for Working on the Sabbath
      The LORD then gave these further instructions to Moses: ‘Tell the people of Israel to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you forever. It helps you to remember that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. Yes, keep the Sabbath day, for it is holy. Anyone who desecrates it must die; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. Work six days only, but the seventh day must be a day of total rest. I repeat: Because the LORD considers it a holy day, anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death.’ (Exodus 31:12-15 NLT)

    • Bear Millotts

      Grady, the Bible is the core book of Xianity and I’ve provided you with a list of Bible quotes that have inspired people to violence. Xians have used these quotes to justify violence for over 2000 years.

      Can you provide a list of quotes that is from a core book of atheism that has the same track record?

      You can’t, because, unlike Xianity, there is no core book requiring violent acts for atheists. Why? Because atheists have no “holy scripture.”

    • DavidMHart

      Find us a good example of someone who committed acts of mass murder purely motivated by their non-belief in gods – i.e. someone who was not also already acting in the cause of some other ideology, such as communism or some dictator’s personality cult, and who was not under any obvious psychological impairment. There may be a handful out there, but none that I’ve ever heard of.

      Of course, there is no shortage of atheists who have done terrible things. But there is a noticeable shortage of atheists who have been motivated to violence solely by an absence of belief in a supernatural creator. But conversely, no shortage of theists whose evil actions are, by their own words, entirely motivated by their beliefs in a supernatural creator whose wishes they claim to know, where those actions wouldn’t make any sense in the absence of those specific beliefs.

  • Doug B.

    We need to be careful in painting with a wide brush. Yes there are extremists who do bad things in the name of their religion. That doesn’t automatically equate the religion with the bad thing. Yes we can dismiss the religion because it is illogical and leads people to do bad things but we need to make sure the extremists who do the bad things get blamed for their actions not just for their religion.

    • baal

      I agree with Sam Harris’s specific point that Islam (as practiced by some Muslims in some parts of the world) supports otherwise good people doing really bad things. I don’t think the acts of violence done by Islamist extremists is solely categorizable as a few bad apples. The overall violence rate and the irrelevancy of who they target makes these folks notable and different than the background violence rate.

    • Loqi

      I’m in agreement about not blaming all Muslims for the atrocities of a few. But it’s a fair criticism to say all Muslims are guilty of the same thing every theist is guilty of: contributing to a society that celebrates irrationality. If extremism is a bacteria, then moderate religion is the agar plate in which it is grown. Without a nurturing environment in which beliefs are unbounded by reality and our humanity takes a back seat to adherence to dogma, religious extremism will not flourish.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Any system of thought that places more value on the afterlife than this life runs the risk of getting itself into these kinds of problems.

  • Randy Gritter

    I am not aware of anyone who has been making apologies for people who engage in monstrous behavior on account of religious beliefs. Most religious people acknowledge that there is such a thing as bad religion. I would not say it is worse than bad politics. When nation states start killing on a large scale they make the Boston Marathon guys look like amateurs. Still bad behavior needs to be condemned. In fact, Pope Benedict did call on all religious leaders to condemn all religious violence.

    But we need to be logical. If people kill because of love, and they do, does that make love evil? If people kill because of money, and they do, does that make money evil? Religion sparks violence because it touches people deeply. IT also sparks many good things because it touches people deeply.

    • baal

      It looks like, however, Islam, as practiced in many countries, has memes that, in particular, support violence and are hostile to education. Similar memes have been seen in christian dominated countries but they are selected against (mostly).

      I’m of the opinion, on net, religions promote bad solutions to problems since they put ‘god’ or their beliefs ahead of empirical investigation. This means religous are always supporting sub-optimal outcomes or that if tey get a good policy, it’ll largely be by accident.

      • Randy Gritter

        That just amounts to saying your belief system is right so everybody should follow it. The Taliban say their belief system is right. I think you are both wrong. But if we can get so far as to renounce violence as a way of pushing our belief system forward we will be accomplishing something.

        Christians have basically done that. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in Christianity would say violence is never justified as a means of religious persuasion. There are always a few freaks on the fringe but they are way, way out of the mainstream.

        What we need is an understanding of a freedom of conscience that crosses all religions. That is a bit of a dream right now but it is the only way to make these kinds of incidents rare.

        Sam Harris seems more like you. That is seeing atheism as the answer. That is like me saying Christianity is the answer. Neither are going to be the least bit convincing to a Muslim. We need to make the argument that religious violence is illogical. Why would God make people who rebel against Him and then make other people who use violence to get the first group to fake believing in Him?

        • Daniel Schealler

          Issue for me is that it matters if someone’s initial set of assumptions are wrong.

          A: If someone’s initial set of assumptions are wrong, and that leads to violence, then it seems you would grant that there’s a problem here.

          B: If someone’s initial set of assumptions are wrong, but that doesn’t lead to violence, then to me it still matters that the assumptions are wrong because they’ll always be a rake in the grass.

          It seems that you don’t have a problem with B? Correct me if wrong, easy to misread someone when all you have to go on is a scrap of text.

          Outcomes are important, but they’re not the whole story. The initial set of assumptions are important too.

        • baal

          I think atheism is the correct outcome to basing your beliefs on actually provable evidence. I don’t think everyone who is going to true belief will wind up there. I think it’s a total fail at reason to be a religious conservative – they are flatly wrong on too many things.

          Atheism, however, is a really tiny idea and tells you next to nothing about how to live your life. That said, Humanism is a very good ethical/moral system. Science, is the best (maybe even only) way to understand the objective world.

          Religions may be better than anarchy but both are clearly inferior at ordering civilization than basing humanist policy on scientific facts.

          I’m not claiming to be right, I’m claiming science is special since it tellls you what the world actually is. I’m asserting that humanism is better than religions since you don’t have to bow to supernatural entities to make your decisions. I’m also agreeing with Sam Harris that Islam (not all of it, but a particular subset that intersects with middle eastern tribal beliefs) has memes that are extremely sub-optimal. I’m further asserting that you can use plainly unnecessary human suffering as the semi-objective standard for grading belief systems.

          ex, Society 1: you have 10 people and food for 30. Your society kills 2 people cruelly to appease a god. Another 3 must live like slaves. Reproduction fills in the 2 and the society grows to 20 people in 10 years. Society 2: 10 people, food for 30. Noone is killed. Noone has to serve as slaves. Reproduction is slower and the folks live longer. After 10 years, the society grows to add 5 people.

          Which is better? The second one. I don’t value the suffering nor the rapid birth rates. You can pick a number of grading factors (demographics) and start ranking various societies. Islamic ones – especially the middle east type, rank poorly for me and seem to have excess killing and cruelty. Christianity has it’s problems too – especially when it comes to children, not just the sex abuse but also in being anti education, stealing babies for adoptions, diverting orphans to laundries and sweatshops etc. It’s a long list and shockingly recent.