Interfaith literacy: Omar Sarwar on utilitarianism and atheism’s “old white guy” image

Interfaith literacy: Omar Sarwar on utilitarianism and atheism’s “old white guy” image December 29, 2014
From an interfaith event at Faisal Mosque. Photo by the U.S. State Department.
From an interfaith event at Faisal Mosque. Photo by the U.S. State Department.

On Friday, we posted the first of three parts of an interview with Omar Sarwar. Sarwar is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who wrote a piece for Huffington Post that thoroughly debunked some of Bill Maher and Sam Harris’ go-to talking points about Islam.

I’ve learned a lot from Sarwar about Islam, atheism, and everything in between, and I hope you will as well.

If you missed the first part, you can find that here. This post picks up in the middle of a conversation about Sam Harris’ philosophy, which Sarwar describes as a “a curious amalgam of utilitarianism and moral naturalism.”


So in addition to Sam Harris’ claims about religion, you’re concerned about his suggestion that morals are somehow absolute?

Well, I think he’s actually right to reject complete moral relativism, and no question but that careful study of the nervous system can inform moral philosophy in important ways. The problem, however, is that he wants to predicate objective moral values on science, which has no business answering the question: “What ought we to do?” In other words, it’s the scientistic assumptions he makes that throw him off course. The philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, rightly notes in his review of The Moral Landscape in the New York Times that Harris fails to explain exactly how science has shown that the right moral principle is one which maximises well-being in terms of our conscious mental states.

I’ll not go into detail about why it’s reasonable to reject Harris’ views on American imperialism and the violent backlash it has generated for several decades in parts of the Islamic world. He seems to think that the American government’s (allegedly) good intentions—coupled with a thought experiment about the use of ‘perfect weapons’ by certain political actors—demonstrate the moral superiority of George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden and Tony Blair to Saddam Hussein. But intentions don’t matter nearly as much as he suggests, and counterfactual thought experiments are of little utility in the study of history.

Also, it seems to me like this emphasis on intentions would run against his otherwise utilitarian(ish) outlook?

I’m not sure. The philosopher, Michael Ridge, argues that John Stuart Mill not only posited a strong connection between intentions (as opposed to motives) and the morality of our actions, but also that this connection is of a piece with his larger utilitarian theory.

Irrespective of whether Ridge has read Mill correctly, however, there are at least a few good reasons to reject utilitarianism. I’ll not rehearse those arguments here. What I want to emphasise is that intentions aren’t as significant as Harris supposes because whatever good intentions we claim for ourselves are more commensurate with those of our enemies than we think.

How so?

In one of the more brilliant passages of his book, On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad shows why the moral advantage which state armies claim over non-state militant actors is illusory. He looks at the commentary of two scholars on the Arab-Israeli conflict to illustrate this point. The first is that of the political scientist and former American National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the second that of political philosopher and liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer.

The prevailing liberal assumption is that, unlike the terrorist, the IDF soldier suffers from guilt when he kills innocents. It’s the fault of Palestinian armed groups in Gaza who fire rockets from areas densely populated by civilians that they die in large numbers when Israel retaliates. The same is supposedly true of Israel’s conflict with Lebanon. But Brzezinski points out that when the Israelis killed scores of civilians who had nothing to do with Hezbollah’s militancy in the 2006 Lebanon War, their actions should have been considered deliberate in effect for two reasons. Firstly, the Israeli government didn’t really care about the amount of collateral damage they caused in Lebanon; secondly, the main purpose of the killing was to intimidate their enemies.

So these two factors make it difficult to accept the claim that they didn’t deliberately kill civilians.

That’s right.

Where does Walzer fit in this debate?

Walzer says that the kind of intimidation Brzezinski describes is justifiable. By diminishing the already abysmal quality of life in Gaza, he argues, Israel seeks to pressurise the political representatives of Gaza’s denizens to do something about the militants targeting Israel. One might add to these observations that large numbers of dead civilians were the natural and foreseeable outcome of Israeli military operations in Lebanon and Gaza. The end (e.g. the intimidation of one’s enemies to get them to respond as one would like) is seen to justify the means (e.g. killing noncombatants). So punishing civilians may be the only way to defeat the enemy as long as those doing the punishing experience a pang of guilt afterward.

Our military commanders insist that they kill civilians but wouldn’t if they weren’t “forced to.” And what justifies this excess is the need to defend our way of life. (That’s a recurring motif in both American and Israeli official discourse. For instance, in a meeting a few months ago with the Norwegian foreign minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel’s terrorist enemies represent a grave threat to “our way of life”).

Now, Asad’s key insight here is that the terrorist’s killing of civilians is similarly deliberate albeit “forced.” The terrorist says that he’s been tested to the hilt and has no choice but to engage in immoral killings to forestall the forcible transformation of his people’s way of life. And maybe those who afflict his people with gratuitous suffering will respond in the appropriate way (the end) if he slays enough noncombatants (the means). Yet, as we’ve just seen, this is precisely how the Israeli government has dealt with Gaza.

So there is a kind of moral equivalence between the justificatory rhetoric of state armies and that of non-state militant actors.

Yes, and I should stress that I endorse neither.

It doesn’t seem like there’s much left to defend in Harris’ writings on this topic!

Unfortunately, there isn’t. Much of this probably sounds harsh. But I think that atheists, sceptics, and secular humanists might consider giving other thinkers within their communities a comparable public platform from which to offer some genuine insights into religion, philosophy, and history. (Goodness knows we Muslims face the same problem!)

Having established that you’re not a fan of Harris, are there any atheist thought leaders you do like?

One candidate is the renowned philosopher, Philip Kitcher. Although I’ve not yet had a chance to read Life After Faith, Kitcher’s interviews with Chris Stedman and philosopher Gary Gutting provide a glimpse of some of its core arguments, which are far more sophisticated than what we find in The End of Faith or God is not Great.

I must admit that I disagree with some of Kitcher’s assertions. For instance, he appears to draw too thick a line between ‘the will of a deity’ and the need to ‘work out our obligations together,’ a cooperative morality in the here and now. A philosophical position like normative theological voluntarism might collide with such a cooperative morality, but the latter isn’t obviously in conflict with, say, paradigmatic natural law theory or Kantian moral religion.

He also asks the faithful to doubt the truth of their religious beliefs because of the contingent circumstances under which they came to hold those beliefs, but it’s not clear why he doesn’t ask the same of the secular-minded in respect of their non-religious beliefs.

That seems fair. But despite these reservations you still think Kitcher would be a better leader for the atheist community?

Overall, yes. It must be said that, whatever the validity of its arguments, the New Atheist movement suffers from an image problem because it remains dominated by ageing white men. This is actually a concern that has emerged within the atheist community itself. So even if these guys had all of the correct arguments on their side, the ‘optics’ wouldn’t look very good.

Yeah, I definitely agree that atheism has an “old white guy” problem. Though to be fair, our blog is also primarily populated with white male voices. Do you think there’s something in particular about the atheist movement that makes it so disproportionately white and male? And do you think there’s something we can do to address that issue?

I suppose the way any movement should address this issue is to foster as much diversity as possible amongst its ranks. And I do think that there’s something about the leadership of New Atheism that makes it disproportionately white and male–namely, privilege. Let’s leave aside the question of whether atheism is true or false, which has nothing to do with the ethnic heritage or income level of its chief spokesmen in the west. I’d say that people like Richard Dawkins and Harris are able to advertise what they view as advantages of atheism precisely because they lead privileged lives.

For example, the message of 2008–09 Atheist Bus Campaign in Britain which Dawkins supported was that since it’s unlikely that God exists, you can stop worrying and enjoy life. Atheism isn’t just true; it’s also liberating. But this type of message can only target those who have the luxury to quit worrying and enjoy life. It holds little appeal for, say, a middle-aged, pious woman in Pakistan who lives in squalor and misery, whose husband has abandoned her, who’s seen one of her children become paralysed by polio and the other die of malaria, who begs for money and food on crowded streets only to be cast aside.

The materialist atheism that Dawkins advocates would be even more difficult for such an underprivileged person to countenance. She’d have to accept that, for all we know, the cosmos exists by accident, the world exists by accident, life arose by accident, human beings exist by accident, her circumstances are just bad luck, her oppressors will never be brought to justice, she’ll never see her dead children again, and one day, she’ll be interred in the ground with vilest worms to dwell. So I think Dawkins would do better to admit that his materialist atheism is awfully painful for the wretched of the earth to accept than to glamourise it. Again, these considerations are entirely separate from the issue of whether atheism is true.

Interesting perspective, but I interrupted you. Back to Kitcher.

On the whole, Kitcher’s is a welcome intervention in these debates. One minor concern is to do with his choice of language. For example, I’m not sure what to make of his commitment to pragmatism. If he values practicality and collaboration between believers and humanists in fighting for social justice, then why declare that he’s a more insidious enemy of religion than Dawkins or that he wants to pave the way for the disappearance of religion? This sort of language runs the risk of alienating believers (including practitioners of what he calls ‘refined religion’) with whom secular humanists wish to make common cause.

I doubt very many secular humanists would appreciate my saying that I want to prepare the way for the gradual disappearance of secular humanism. Still, Kitcher has set a great example for his fellow humanists in terms of forging closer social and political ties with religious believers. And his stance on religion is clearly far more relevant, appealing, and nuanced than anything the New Atheist horsemen have had to say. I look forward to reading his book soon.

Omar Sarwar
Omar Sarwar

The third and final part of this interview will be posted on Wednesday. In the final part we will, among other things, discuss why people attribute acts of violence to Islam’s “inherently violent nature” while letting other faith- and philosophical traditions off the hook.

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