Sam Harris has a new article on his site that somehow transitions from “why are perpetrators of mass violence almost always male?” to “and here’s why Islam is bad.” It’s summed up with some commentary on The Friendly Atheist by Terry Firma.[ref]Terry Firma says in his bio that he has had “feature articles” published in The New York Times. I was kind of skeptical and, after a Google search and some digging around on the Times site, all I could find was this comment he left on a blog post. It’d be nice if someone could clear that up. UPDATE: Hemant clears that up.[/ref]
There’s a general tendency I’ve noticed among critics of Islam to paint themselves as the straight-talkers concerned with facts, while everyone else is just appeasing Islam while caving into Political Correctness or intellectual cowardice. But it seems like both the original post and Firma’s commentary actually seem to show how poorly supported by facts such strong anti-Islamic rhetoric actually is.[ref]Your first hint might be that Harris isn’t referencing “cancer” or “aging” or “parochial apathy toward the 30,000 children who die preventable deaths every day because of global poverty” or like, literally anything else when describing what he sees as “the most terrifying and depressing phenomenon on earth.”[/ref] First, Harris writes in his post:
Whenever I point out the role that religious ideology plays in atrocities of this kind—specifically the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth—I am met with some version of the following: “Bad people will always do these things. Religion is nothing more than a pretext.” This is an increasingly dangerous misconception to have about the human mind.
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.
This perfectly highlights the attitude I mentioned above, while showing how almost absurd Harris’s claims are on their face. Let’s take seriously for a second the idea that specific beliefs are to blame for religious violence, and that this is a problem because beliefs spread. How would we expect the map of all suicide bombings to look, then? Would we expect them all to be bunched by geography or political conflicts[ref]As they very obviously are. lol facts.[/ref] or by where Islam has (very widely, I might add) spread?
If it’s “the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth” driving such kinds of Islamic violence, would we expect to see the modern suicide attack pioneered by the (secular, nationalist) Tamil Tigers? If suicide bombers are just motivated by getting heaven-virgins and killing infidels, would we see suicide attacks limited almost exclusively to the specific, secular context of occupation? If Islam is dangerous because it’s an idea and ideas spread, then isn’t it weird that violent Islam seems so geographically isolated? Why don’t we see violent Islam in Minnesota? Or even Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world but, as far as I know, no suicide attacks or regular infidel-murdering?[ref]I can’t even handle all these facts I am ignoring because of political convenience wow I wish I were as intellectually brave as Sam Harris someone teach me integrity plz.[/ref] What a dangerous misconception about the human mind, right?Even more misleading is Ferma’s commentary on Harris’s article. Ferma writes:
How do we know that hundreds of millions of Muslim support these atrocities? That’s a key fact from the major international Pew Research study that came out half a year ago. The PDF of the full report is here, but here’s one eye-popping finding:
The survey found the global median for Muslims opposed to violence in the name of Islam was 72 percent.
So a solid majority of Muslims do not openly engage in (nor openly support) killing for Allah. 72 percent! Terrific! Except… well, what about the other 28 percent? There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet.
Wow, with eye-popping statistics like that, it almost does seem like Islam might be a uniquely violent religion instilling cruelty in its adherents. Except that, of course, Ferma does no work at all to put these statistics into any kind of relevant or appropriate context. So let me fill in the gaps.
28 percent of Muslims in the world say that violence against civilians might sometimes be justified, sure. But how does that compare to other religious groups? What about people in the U.S.? Let’s look at some Gallup data:
So 21 percent of American Muslims say that violence against civilians is sometimes justified. But then again, 58 percent of Protestants and Catholics say the same. Even 43 percent of American seculars do, too. Compared to that, it doesn’t really seem that the 28 percent looks so bad.
Let me reiterate this: atheists in America are more tolerant of targeting and killing civilians than the global Muslim population is.
A lot of people complain about the word “Islamophobe.” If there’s something better to describe people who irrationally and prejudicially hold some religions and religious groups to different standards, I’ve yet to hear it. Until then, I think it’ll do.