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Austin Cline

Do Religious Liberals Provide Cover for Religious Extremists?

By March 22, 2007

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One issue which has been drawing more conflict between irreligious atheists and religious believers is whether religious liberals and moderates provide "cover" for religious fundamentalists and extremists. Religious believers object to any such connection being made because they strongly oppose many of the beliefs and actions of extremists, so how could they possibly be held to blame for what extremists do?

This sort of objection completely misses the point of atheists' criticism, though. Atheists don't deny that liberals and moderates argue against fundamentalists; the problem is, though, that liberals and moderates affirm many of the positions which extremists use as the basis for their extremism. Because extremism must be attacked at its foundations, extremism cannot be criticized without also criticizing the beliefs of liberals and moderates — and they frequently object to this.

When liberals and moderates insist that respect for their religious beliefs means not criticizing them, they ensure that fundamentalists and extremists cannot be criticized as strongly and effectively as they might be. This, in turn, makes it easier for fundamentalism and extremism to survive — or even thrive. Muslim extremists cannot be criticized, for example, without making arguments that moderate Muslims treat as blasphemy or insulting to religion, Islam, and Muhammad. Protecting extremism is not what liberals and moderates intend, but it's what happens.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society writes:

The danger that these apparently harmless liberals pose is that of enabling the fanatics, who happily use them as human shields. Just as the terrorists of the Middle East will hide out in schools and hospitals to avoid being targeted by enemy bombs, so the ideological terrorists hide behind the liberals and the good-natured in order to spread their doctrine of intimidation and terror.

The poor, bleating liberals who are constantly complaining that their faith is not only misunderstood by its non-adherents, but also perverted by the fanatics who share it. There they stand, having spent a lifetime reinforcing in their heads the childhood brainwashing that they will never overcome, and making excuses for the same beliefs that motivate bombers and theocrats, misogynists and homophobes. This hinders the rest of us getting a clear run at the villains.

The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute. But it's no good the liberals trying to dissociate themselves from their wilder compatriots in faith. They promote and praise the same holy books that the fanatics use as justification for their murderous activities. "But the terrorists and the bigots are not true Christians/Muslims" say the liberals, while the bigots and the terrorists say exactly the same thing about them.

Source: Guardian

This argument has really upset a number of religious liberals — they object, it seems, to any association between themselves and religious extremists. What is noteworthy, though, is how vacuous their objections ultimately are. They offer a lot of hyper-emotional language, but almost nothing that looks like a serious argument against this position. Even worse, they refuse to accurately represent what the position is.

First, let's look at how Sam Harris has explained this position, since it is against him that most religious liberals react:

"The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists, men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals 'who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally' deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society."

Now, let's look at how religious liberals grossly misrepresent this position. First there's Sunny Hundal at Pickled Politics:

It may be that religious conservatives like the Muslim Brotherhood / Jamaat/Hizb ut-Tahrir types try and explain away Al-Qaeda, in the same way that the RSS/VHP/BJP Hindu nationalists in India provide cover for the real militants like the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena (and worse). Most ordinary religious liberals just want to live their lives in peace let alone get involved in these debates. The few who do want to take things in a more progressive path get it in the neck from conservatives and now these atheists. To say they’re simply “providing cover” is just, well, ignorant.

Sunny links to Sanderson's original, so we know he read it — and we know that he read Harris' detailed explanation where he makes it clear that liberals only provide cover for extremists in that liberals provide cover for those who are "next in line" along the spectrum of beliefs — and eventually that leads to extremists. He doesn't say that liberals directly cover for extremists, and he even makes a point of saying that it's inadvertent. Neither he nor Sanderson say that any of them try to "explain away" violent extremists. Sunny's description of this position isn't merely ignorant, it's false from beginning to end and it's difficult to imagine how so much falsehood could be accidental.

Then there's Simon Barrow at Ekklesia:

The argument, cloned from US polemicist Sam Harris, is based on a tautology: religion (yes, all of it, from Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama through to Pat Robertson and Abu Hamza) is defined as somehow tainted with criminality. It then follows that anyone who is 'religious' - no matter how reformed they may claim to be - remains an unwitting accomplice to those who commit overt crimes... thus proving that, er, religion is criminal.

Does this look anything at all like what Sam Harris or Terry Sanderson wrote? Of course not. The argument doesn't presume that all religion is criminal (though it may assume that all religion is irrational) — Simon Barrow has simply made that up on his own. Sam Harris' argument is fairly straightforward and there are multiple places where it could be attacked, at least in theory.

Harris is drawing connections between liberals and moderates, moderates and fundamentalists, and finally fundamentalists and extremists. Any of these points of alleged connection might in theory not exist, or not be demonstrable, or at least be much weaker than is necessary for Harris' argument to work. Anyone wishing to test or refute Harris' argument could mount an attack at any of these three points — but none do. Why is that? Why don't critics take on any of the obvious joints in the argument and instead make up falsehoods?

Incidentally, Simon Barrow complains desperately about those like Sanderson who have a "polarizing mindset" and who see things in "black-and-white terms." Almost immediately after this, Barrow describes the National Secular Society in polarizing, black-and-white terms: it "appears to be a coalition of some quite constructive voices and some rather angry or resentful ones." According to Barrow, “The idea that people may simply be divided into categories like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, or ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, is not one that bears a lot of scrutiny," but I guess it is OK to divide secularists into "constructive" and "resentful."

Frederick Clarkson is another who unambiguously misrepresents Sam Harris:

...the burden is on Harris to make his case that liberal Christians are directly or indirectly soft on dominionism. But he does not do that.

Harris does not do that because Harris does not make that claim. Harris does not dispute the fact that liberal believers disagree quite vociferously with moderates, fundamentalists, and dominations. His claim is not that they are "soft" on extremists, but rather that they inadvertently provide shelter to extremists by preventing them from being critiqued as fundamentally as possible.

Liberal believers and atheists approach extremists from different directions: believers accept many of the same basic principles as the extremists while atheists reject them all. Both approaches have some value, but in the end it's difficult to thoroughly critique extremism while accepting its basic tenets. Atheists' critiques are hamstrung, however, by the efforts of liberal believers to prevent the criticism of religion, Christianity, the Bible, faith in Jesus, and similar beliefs generally. Too many liberals don't want to see these beliefs attacked, but leaving them sacred and untouched makes it easier for extremists to ply their trade.

...his claim that moderate religion is responsible for the extreme views and activities of others requires smacks of the kind of out-of-context-of-life abstraction one sometimes gets from arm chair generals and people whose experience of the political world is limited to grad school.

But of course, Sam Harris isn't quoted as saying that "moderate religion is responsible" for extremism, but for some reason Frederick Clarkson still wants to hold him responsible for that — insisting that he back it up with evidence and argument. That's completely irresponsible and not particularly honest of Clarkson (because he has Harris' words right there in front of him), but it's also not the least bit uncommon.

As demonstrated above, liberal Christians of all kinds are adopting the same irresponsible, dishonest tactic. They can't address what Harris actually says, so instead they make up things they can attribute to him and whine about. There are legitimate ways to criticize Harris, but to forsake them in exchange for straw men has the unmistakable whiff of desperation — as if Harris' arguments are cutting a bit too close for comfort.

Even atheists egregiously misrepresent Sam Harris in order to criticize him. Here's Simen:

Harris wants to blame moderates for something they have done nothing to support. Does he not realize how incredibly stupid that is?

Remember what Sam Harris originally wrote: he didn't say that believers were responsible for actions or beliefs of those further along the ideological spectrum, nor did he try to hand out blame. His words were very, very different: "one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism" [emphasis added]. These words are nothing at all like the views Siemen tries to attribute to him — there's no connection at all.

It might be argued that providing shelter from criticism makes one somewhat complicit in what's not being criticized as vigorously as it should be, but "complicit" in this sense is not the same as blame. Simen isn't the only atheist to criticize Sam Harris for this position, and they all seem to misrepresent Harris in similar ways by attributing to him claims and ideas which aren't justified by his actual words. There are certainly valid criticisms that can be made of what Harris says (on this issue and on others), but would it really be too much to ask that critics address his actual words and statements rather than make up nonsense like what we read in all the above quotes?

 

Update: Frederick Clarkson continues to misrepresent Sam Harris in his attempt to explain what it means to "inadvertently" give cover to extremists:

Mirriam Webster's online dictionary definitions for the one out of context word,"inadvertent" on which he hangs his accusation. The first defintion is "inattentive;" the second; "unintentional." Neither word implies a lack of responsibility or blamelessness. For example, people die in traffic accidents because of being inattentive. Deaths in hunting accidents may be ruled unintentional. But lines of responsibility are clearly drawn in routine use.

Frederick Clarkson is correct here that "inadvertent" implies some measure of responsibility, but he's drawing the line of responsibility in a clearly incorrect location. To understand why, we need to look at the words which Clarkson keeps not quoting (I find this curious — is it related to why he didn't quote the part of my comments focusing on this, and without including any reference to having cut something?): "inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism." It's not a matter of providing safe houses to hide extremists from the police or even making excuses for what extremists do. Instead, it's simply a matter of making criticism of extremists more difficult.

This is what Harris implies that liberals and moderates bear some responsibility for: sheltering others from criticism. Clarkson is right to note that just because it's inadvertent doesn't mean they aren't responsible for it. There is nothing here about being responsible for the views and activities of extremists, though. If I accuse Rush Limbaugh of inadvertently making criticism of George W. Bush more difficult, I am not thereby accusing him of being responsible for Bush's beliefs and policy decisions. That's absurd.

By the same token, If I say that liberals shelter moderates and moderates shelter fundamentalists from criticism, this doesn't mean I'm also saying that liberals or moderates should be held responsible for the specific beliefs, doctrines, or activities of fundamentalists. It might be argued that sheltering someone from criticism aids them in their beliefs and actions, but any indirect responsibility which one might therefore have for another's beliefs or actions would be weak and debatable — and Harris doesn't try to tackle that issue.

This doesn't mean that there aren't more significant lines of responsibility linking liberals and moderates to their more extremist brethren, though. Kelton Cobb, a Professor of Theology and Ethics at Hartford Seminary, is a believer who — unlike Clarkson — is able to recognize that some lines of responsibility exist and is willing to accept them as part of being a Christian:

Every religion is like a rope, woven from many strands. Christianity is a weave of the teachings of Jesus, the theology of Paul, the neoplatonism of Augustine, Constantine’s conversion, the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis, the iconography of the Copts, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the piety of the Puritans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights movement, Jerry Falwell, and archbishop Romero.

I don’t like several of these strands, but when I study them I discover that they contain fibers I recognize in my own faith. Inside the racism of the Ku Klux Klan one can find firm beliefs surrounding Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, divine election, God’s sovereignty over all reality, hatred for the devil, absolute faith in the resurrection of Christ, the importance of purity and righteousness, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Klan did not come out of thin air; it is a development within Christianity which I abhor, but in calling myself a Christian I am complicit and have to answer for it.

The Kelton Cobbs of Christendom are the ones who can accept some responsibility for the extremists in Christendom, and this means that they are the ones who are most likely to make any progress when it comes to moderating the extremists. The Federick Clarksons who refuse to accept any responsibility for extremists in their religions may offer many great arguments for why the extremists are wrong, but they won't accomplish much. People who cannot accept any responsibility for a problem cannot be counted on to solve that problem.

Frederick Clarkson claims to have given my words considerable time and consideration, but I think he should have spent a tad more time on where the "lines of responsibility" should be drawn. If he had, he might have realized that his original misrepresentation of Harris' statements could have been fixed by a simple change — like for example "his claim that moderate religion bears some measure of responsibility for making criticism of extremists more difficult..." Of course, with such a change the rest of what he wrote wouldn’t have worked.

Clarkson also probably should have addressed the first example of misrepresentation I pointed out — where he accused Harris of saying that liberals are "indirectly soft on dominionism" when Harris makes no such claim. Maybe he forgot?

I'm not a "fan" of Sam Harris, by the way — I think that there are a number of areas where his arguments are poor. I came to the same position as him on this matter well before his book was published. It was Kelton Cobb, a Christian theologian, who pointed me in this direction, not Sam Harris the atheist. This is just another example of Frederick Clarkson stretching to make unjustified claims about others who don't share his beliefs.

If he's bothered that I find such egregiously unjustified misrepresentations to be "not particularly honest," I could rephrase this to read "not particularly fair" — but I don't think that would salvage his credibility here. A credible critic is one who can critique the actual words and claims others make rather than inserting new ones to attack.

 

Update #2: Nearly a month later, the misrepresentations continue. This time, Bob Crispen misrepresents the issue in what might be the most fundamental way possible:

There is an important and obvious difference between claiming a position on a spectrum whose extremes are responsible for evil and actively collaborating with evil.

This is true, but no one claimed claimed liberals are "actively collaborating with evil." On the contrary, it is stated more than once that any aid which extremists receive is unintended. By setting up this Red Herring, Bob Crispen doesn't address the actual issue: do liberals do things which unintentionally aid others further along the continuum?

There’s a difference between identifying yourself on a continuum and joining an organization.

This is also true, but when you identity with a religion you aren't merely "on a continuum" or "joining an organization," you are part of a larger tradition which (as Kelton Cobb explains above) one becomes complict in. By setting up a False Dilemma fallacy here, Bob Crispen avoids addressing the real context.

So Cline has some guilt of his own: he’s managed to ignore two and possibly as many as four distinctions. Important distinctions.

These "distinctions" are founded upon obvious logical fallacies. If I'm guilty of ignoring fallacious distinctions, then that's a guilt I think I can live with.

Comments
March 22, 2007 at 2:42 pm
(1) Ron says:

Austin Cline:
I have been debating this issue in my mind and verbaly with my sectarian aquaintacnes for somme time now, but you are so much more eloquent than myself. Thank you!

March 22, 2007 at 2:59 pm
(2) Jennifer says:

Beautifully stated – thank you.

March 22, 2007 at 10:48 pm
(3) maroonblazer says:

Great summary of the conversation!

March 22, 2007 at 11:15 pm
(4) miller says:

One thing that bothers me about this argument is that it is a non sequitur. If you showed beyond all doubt that religion were good for society, that doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is true. Similarly, if you showed beyond all doubt that moderates are sheltering the extremists from criticism, that doesn’t necessarily the moderate position is an incorrect one.

Even if they didn’t resort to straw men, what are moderates supposed to say? The proper thing to say would be, “Fundamentalists are incorrect, just not for the reasons advanced by atheists.” By itself, this argument gets us nowhere.

March 23, 2007 at 8:21 am
(5) IsaacJ says:

Non sequitur or not, I think this is an argument that has to be made. This isn’t about whether religion is true or not. Atheism versus belief is a separate issue entirely, and it isn’t the only issue of concern to atheists. This argument is about the difficulties in dealing with extremists (especially violent extremists) and how moderates are entangling the process for everyone. They need to stop protecting the extremists and need to realize what they are doing, whether they mean to protect them or not. (I think not, BTW)

In other words, the argument helps make people aware of the issue. Hopefully, at least some religious moderates will realize that they are not exempt from criticism any more than atheists are. Maybe they’ll even realize that their sensitivity to these issues is contributing to a serious problem the world is facing today. When atheists single out extremists for criticism, maybe…just maybe…a few of the moderates will get out of the way instead of making excuses to the public about the real issues we are addressing. Someone has to point this out or they’ll just keep confusing the issues and muddying the waters.

March 23, 2007 at 9:37 am
(6) Not Saussure says:

Atheists’ critiques are hamstrung, however, by the efforts of liberal believers to prevent the criticism of religion, Christianity, the Bible, faith in Jesus, and similar beliefs generally. Too many liberals don’t want to see these beliefs attacked, but leaving them sacred and untouched makes it easier for extremists to ply their trade.

Sorry, but I don’t quite understand. Why do you want to ‘critique’ the religious views of extremists? I mean, if it gives you pleasure so to do, then don’t let me stop you, but it seems a pretty pointless exercise; you’re hardly likely to change each other’s minds, after all.

Most of us — religious fundamentalists and militant atheists aside — aren’t particularly bothered about what people do or don’t believe; it’s what they do as a result of their beliefs that’s the worrying bit, and that’s best dealt with as a political problem.

There’s no point, most of the time, in trying to persuade a convinced political opponent he’s got it all wrong; what matters is persuading other people that the measures that your opponent is proposing aren’t a particularly good idea. I can easily give you half a dozen good arguments in favour of gay rights or against theocracy, none of which depend on the validity or otherwise of anyone’s religious views and which are all the more convincing for it.

What bothered a lot of people — religious and non-religious — about the Guardian article was the way it conflated secularism with atheism. The two are completely separate things and it’s plying the extremists’ trade for them to pretend otherwise.

March 23, 2007 at 10:29 am
(7) Sunny says:

Terry Sanderson says:

The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute.

This is direct ‘guilty by association’ – how can you say I haven’t read the article?

Frankly to me it’s irrelevant if you or Terry or anyone think religion is hogwash. Fine, you’re welcome to think that.

That isn’t the issue here though. The point is firstly that the NSS itself is more obsessed with atheism than it is with secularism – making other people think that while its stated agenda is ther latter, its actual agenda is the former.

Secondly Terry Sanderson is directly mud-slinging all religious liberals as being in cahoots with and providing cover for terrorist types. That is also bollocks.

Please stop conflating the different issues as TS is doing.

March 23, 2007 at 12:08 pm
(8) Austin Cline says:

This is direct ‘guilty by association’ – how can you say I haven’t read the article?

I disagree, especially since Harris makes it clear that the “shelter” given is inadvertent. That’s not “guilt,” but it is a measure of complicity which a person has the responsibility to overcome and reduce.

Secondly Terry Sanderson is directly mud-slinging all religious liberals as being in cahoots with and providing cover for terrorist types. That is also bollocks.

This is basically the same thing you say above, but it’s just not there in the text. The relationships (and there is more than one) between liberal believers and extremists are present and are obvious. This doesn’t mean liberal believers are to blame for the existence or actions of extremists, but it does mean that liberal believers have it in their power to do more than they already are.

Please stop conflating the different issues as TS is doing.

You have yet to identify any “conflation” on my part. When you do, you’re welcome to criticize that.

March 23, 2007 at 12:12 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

Why do you want to ‘critique’ the religious views of extremists? I mean, if it gives you pleasure so to do, then don’t let me stop you, but it seems a pretty pointless exercise; you’re hardly likely to change each other’s minds, after all.

Minds can be changed, and people can be prevented from falling into the extremists’ worldview. What’s the point of ever critiquing anything at all if minds never change? The answer: minds do change. It’s a fact that no one holds the exact same views for their entire life.

Most of us — religious fundamentalists and militant atheists aside — aren’t particularly bothered about what people do or don’t believe; it’s what they do as a result of their beliefs that’s the worrying bit, and that’s best dealt with as a political problem.

Actions are produced by beliefs; if you don’t tackle mistaken beliefs, you will never truly address mistaken actions.

There’s no point, most of the time, in trying to persuade a convinced political opponent he’s got it all wrong; what matters is persuading other people that the measures that your opponent is proposing aren’t a particularly good idea.

One way of doing that is by showing them that the beliefs which justify those actions are mistaken. It’s not the only way, of course, but it can be an effective way.

What bothered a lot of people — religious and non-religious — about the Guardian article was the way it conflated secularism with atheism.

I’ve seen that claim made by more than one person, but I have yet to see any evidence of it. I frankly just don’t find it in the text.

The two are completely separate things and it’s plying the extremists’ trade for them to pretend otherwise.

I agree that they aren’t the same and have frequently made the point here against the mistaken claims of religious conservatives. I do not, however, see that error being made in the article in question.

March 23, 2007 at 12:47 pm
(10) Austin Cline says:

This is direct ‘guilty by association’ – how can you say I haven’t read the article?

I’d like to expand a bit on my response to this.

There are many, many situations where a person, group, or movement has “paved the way” or “opened doors” for some other person, group, or movement that has done awful things. A number of hyper-nationalist and pagan movements in early 20th century Germany, for example, opened doors and paved the way for the Nazis. Quite a few industrial policies in America opened doors and paved the way for global warming.

We can also say the same thing in relation to people who do good — scientists who open doors for later discoveries and political polices which pave the way for important research.

Do we hold all of those that might have had some influence guilty or responsible for what others did? Of course not. We might praise or criticize them to a limited degree, but if their actions were made without any intention like what ultimately happened, that praise or criticism is very limited. At most, we probably use them as an example to learn from.

Early German nationalists can be criticized for their own actions, but not held guilty for the Holocaust. Scientists can be praised for their own work, but not lauded for inadvertently making later discoveries possible.

The real praise or criticism comes after the connections are made to those involved. If I inform you that you are doing things that help a person do good or bad, then what do you do? Even if you aren’t entirely convinced that I’m right, if there is reason to think that some of your actions have a side-effect of making it easier for others to do good or ill, you can start to be held more responsible for those distant consequences.

It will always be a limited responsibility, but your new intentions will matter a great deal. Do try to limit the negative consequences, even if they seem unlikely? Do you try to expand good consequences? Do you just not care? You have very little responsibility for very distant and filtered consequences of your actions now, but you have more responsibility for your own desires and intentions.

There may be an analogy here with global warming. I certainly can’t be blamed for things I did 10 or 20 years ago when I never heard about the problem. Nothing I personally do now will have much impact, and I certainly can’t be blamed for melting ice caps regardless of how much I currently know. Given the fact that my actions may have a distant and negative impact, though, I can be criticized or praised for how my intentions change now. I can be criticized for disregarding the entire thing and I can be praised for at least trying to minimize negative consequences.

March 23, 2007 at 3:29 pm
(11) Not Saussure says:

Minds can be changed, and people can be prevented from falling into the extremists’ worldview. What’s the point of ever critiquing anything at all if minds never change? The answer: minds do change. It’s a fact that no one holds the exact same views for their entire life.

Let’s try and unpick this a bit. You advance the general proposition that minds can be changed. Indeed they can, about certain things and in certain circumstances. I’m questioning, though, whether there’s much practical point in trying to persuade a religious fundamentalist to change his views on religion. I’ll defer to your experience in the matter — do you find you frequently have much success in this area? How many religious fundamentalists have you persuaded that they’ve got it wrong about religion?

You say that people can be prevented from falling into the extremists’ worldview. Well, I’m sure they can but I’d like to know more about how and why they fall into it in the first place. You must have realised from your experience of life that people come to hold extreme views for all sorts of reasons — a combination, normally, of their personality, their life-experiences and the social and economic reality they inhabit. I’m sure that being exposed to other points of view helps guard against their falling into extremism, but it’s by no means an infallible prophylactic, to my mind.

You ask what’s the point of critiquing anything; well, it depends on what you’re critiquing and how. Unless you’re starting from a shared set of assumptions, there’s often not a great deal to be gained from it, except to demonstrate to others why you think the assumptions are mistaken (which by and large they know anyway, otherwise they’d be extremists themselves).

Actions are produced by beliefs; if you don’t tackle mistaken beliefs, you will never truly address mistaken actions That sounds like something from the Chinese Penal Code! The ‘mistaken belief’ I’m most interested in tackling is someone’s mistaken belief that he’s entitled to make a nuisance of himself, be it for religious, political or any other reason. That’s the way secular, democratic societies work. People can believe (or not) anything they choose so long as they also believe that if they try to force their beliefs on me they may well have problems.

One way of doing that is by showing them that the beliefs which justify those actions are mistaken. I take it by this that you mean the underlying beliefs rather than the belief that a particular course of action is affordable or practicable. I’m sure you’re correct in some circumstances, but do you want to give an example of when you think this is a desirable strategy? For example, I’d feel far happier that, since not everyone shares their beliefs (e.g. that life begins at conception, so abortion is murder) they can’t properly force others to go along with what’s basically a theological position rather than try to argue with them about the existence of the soul, because that’ll get me nowhere. If they then say that God forbids murder, then I reply that He does indeed, but the reason we have laws against murder and theft isn’t that God takes a dim view of them but that a society in which people go around killing and stealing from each other with impunity can’t work. We also, I usually add, have it on good authority that God takes a dim view of adultery, but few people want to criminalise it.

I can guarantee you that line of argument goes down better with most Catholics than does any sort of argument about the foundations of Catholic doctrine.

I’ve seen that claim made by more than one person Re-read the article. He devotes most of it to attacking liberal believers because they get in the way of critiquing extremists and then, suddenly, right at the end, says that, ‘a moment’s thought would tell the liberals that democratic secularism is their best friend.’ Well, yes, and they should also eat a balanced diet, too, but what’s that got to do with the attack on religion he’s just mounted? He seems to be suggesting that ‘the liberals’ think there’s something wrong with democratic secularism — news to me — and that a belief in the merits of democratic secularism should lead someone to agree with the first part of his article, which doesn’t follow at all.

March 23, 2007 at 3:46 pm
(12) Sunny says:

Austin,

I was only responding to the article by Terry Sanderson and not Harris.

But anyway, you say:
The relationships (and there is more than one) between liberal believers and extremists are present and are obvious. This doesn’t mean liberal believers are to blame for the existence or actions of extremists, but it does mean that liberal believers have it in their power to do more than they already are.

Where is the relationship obvious? Because they vaguely share a belief system? That really is disingenuous because people’s interpretations are different and people cannot go around legally stopping others from doing things.

And what/how exactly is it in our power… to stop what?

I’m on the liberal left. So it is my belief that as long as people’s beliefs don’t infringe on mine and they don’t break the law, or are anti-equality, I have no problem with them.

What do you want? Some sort of a statist Atheist utopia where the religious are accused of thought crime or stopped before they do something in the name of religion?

I’m confused as to what you’re advocating here.

There is also a difference between secularism and atheism in the political context. I merely want the NSS to treat the two differently because in the UK we don’t have the clear seperation between state and religion the United States does. Hence it is in no one’s interests to conflate secularism, which ideally everyone should be for, with atheism, which is a matter of private belief.

March 23, 2007 at 3:59 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

I’ll defer to your experience in the matter — do you find you frequently have much success in this area? How many religious fundamentalists have you persuaded that they’ve got it wrong about religion?

I’ve had several people write to me to say that either left religion in part because of reading material here, or changed their minds about atheists.

This site, by the way, does not exist to convince people to give up religion or theism — yet it can still have the impact.

I’m sure that being exposed to other points of view helps guard against their falling into extremism, but it’s by no means an infallible prophylactic, to my mind.

I don’t believe that I’ve suggested otherwise.

You ask what’s the point of critiquing anything; well, it depends on what you’re critiquing and how. Unless you’re starting from a shared set of assumptions, there’s often not a great deal to be gained from it, except to demonstrate to others why you think the assumptions are mistaken (which by and large they know anyway, otherwise they’d be extremists themselves).

It’s been my experience that critiquing non-shared assumptions is precisely where the greatest productivity can be made. People who start out by agreeing with each other on most things end up in a similar position, and that’s not progress.

Actions are produced by beliefs; if you don’t tackle mistaken beliefs, you will never truly address mistaken actions

That sounds like something from the Chinese Penal Code!

What in my statement suggests punishing people for “mistaken beliefs”? Without that inference, your reference to a Penal Code strikes me as completely out of place.

People can believe (or not) anything they choose so long as they also believe that if they try to force their beliefs on me they may well have problems.

I don’t believe that I’ve said anything that suggests people don’t have a right to believe something. Having such a right does not, however, render one immune to criticism — especially when those beliefs are at the heart of actions which are a “nuisance” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

One way of doing that is by showing them that the beliefs which justify those actions are mistaken.

I take it by this that you mean the underlying beliefs rather than the belief that a particular course of action is affordable or practicable. I’m sure you’re correct in some circumstances, but do you want to give an example of when you think this is a desirable strategy?

Depends upon the circumstances. Ultimately, we’re talking about fundamental religious beliefs here and how they can motivate actions. Things that Harris has in mind are, for example, the belief that the Bible is the Word of God, thus leading a person to believe that certain statements are God’s Will and should be implemented by society. One could accept those religious premises and argue that the proposed laws are not affordable or practical, but one can also argue that the Bible isn’t God’s Word, but something else (there are various options available – feel free to pick one).

With some people, one tactic will work well. With other people, another tactic may work better. Harris has a strong preference for the latter, but that’s not his larger point: his larger point is that liberal and moderate believers do things which have the effect of making the latter tactic much more difficult than it should be. You might think that the latter tactic is never or rarely useful, but that wouldn’t actually be an objection to his position. At most, that might allow one to say “he may be right, but it’s ultimately a minor issue.”

He devotes most of it to attacking liberal believers because they get in the way of critiquing extremists and then, suddenly, right at the end, says that, ‘a moment’s thought would tell the liberals that democratic secularism is their best friend.’ Well, yes, and they should also eat a balanced diet, too, but what’s that got to do with the attack on religion he’s just mounted?

You leave out the sentence right before what you quote: “I am now accustomed to being accused of practising “fundamentalist secularism” and “atheist extremism” by religious reactionaries, but now the terms are being eagerly embraced by liberals.” The connection between this and what you quote should be clear; so, what’s the connection between this and the rest of the article? Sanderson is called names because of arguments like those he just made.

He seems to be suggesting that ‘the liberals’ think there’s something wrong with democratic secularism — news to me — and that a belief in the merits of democratic secularism should lead someone to agree with the first part of his article, which doesn’t follow at all.

No, I don’t see that suggestion at all. At worst, there may be a non sequitur there because the main argument through the article doesn’t sufficiently link up with a couple of sentence at the end. Even if that’s the case and he failed to properly link up his thoughts, I see no confusion between “secular” and “atheist.”

March 23, 2007 at 4:20 pm
(14) Austin Cline says:

I was only responding to the article by Terry Sanderson and not Harris.

Sanderson is clearly and openly basing his position on what Harris wrote, so I don’t think that it’s legitimate to read Sanderson without Harris’ words as context. That would change, of course, if Sanderson made it clear that he was trying to go beyond Harris.

Where is the relationship obvious? Because they vaguely share a belief system? That really is disingenuous because people’s interpretations are different and people cannot go around legally stopping others from doing things.

Sharing a belief system does create the basis for a set of relationships, but what is truly disingenuous is your suggestion that I ever even implied anything like “legally stopping others from doing things.” Formally stated, that’s a straw man argument because you are implicitly attributing something to me which I did not say. I never mentioned the law, I simply said that believers have it in their power to do more than what they already are. You can choose to address that or not, but do not imply that I said something more.

And what/how exactly is it in our power… to stop what?

Did I use the word “stop”? No, I did not. Just as with your original post, you are making things up instead of addressing what others really write.

Now, as to what things might be done, there are many – and there are variations because individuals are already doing different things. One good first step (for those who haven’t already done it, of course) would be to cease acting like extremists and fundamentalists are not “real” adherents of the religion – only by engaging the genuine yet unpleasant aspects of one’s religious tradition is there any hope of mitigating them internally.

Another would be to cease insisting that certain basic religious beliefs should be “respected” in the sense that they should be beyond criticism. This is basically Harris’ complaint in the text quoted by Sanderson: by protecting certain religious beliefs from stronger and broader criticism, the fundamentalists and extremists are also protected.

I’m on the liberal left. So it is my belief that as long as people’s beliefs don’t infringe on mine and they don’t break the law, or are anti-equality, I have no problem with them.

What do you want? Some sort of a statist Atheist utopia where the religious are accused of thought crime or stopped before they do something in the name of religion?

Thus far, only you “liberal believers” keep bringing up concept of using the law against beliefs, thoughts, etc. I have never said anything about it, and haven’t even implied it, but you and Not Saussure keeping introducing it into the conversation in ways that imply that this is part of my position — and you are by far the worse of the two, with these hysterical concerns about a “statist atheist utopia” and thought crimes. Give me a break…

That aside, one thing I do share with conservatives is the idea that “beliefs have consequences,” so I’m not willing to ignore false beliefs simply because they aren’t “anti-equality.” If a person doesn’t advocate for beliefs that are false, and generally keep them to themselves, then I won’t be inclined to trouble them. If, however, they are going to put their beliefs out in the public square and advocate for their being adopted by others, then those beliefs should be subject to critical scrutiny for logical coherence, correspondence with reality, etc. If it turns out that people are adopting illogical, irrational, or factually incorrect beliefs, then I would have a problem with that.

I’m confused as to what you’re advocating here.

First step: stick with what I say and don’t put words in my mouth. I’d wager that much of your confusion lies in confusing what I’ve actually written with things I’ve never said but you insist on attributing to me. If for some reason I haven’t been clear enough, that’s a reason to ask for more — it’s not a reason to “fill in the blanks” with your worst fears and/or worst assumptions about atheists. That’s precisely what you do above.

There is also a difference between secularism and atheism in the political context. I merely want the NSS to treat the two differently because in the UK we don’t have the clear seperation between state and religion the United States does.

Thus far, the NSS doesn’t appear to have done anything to treat them as the same.

March 23, 2007 at 4:49 pm
(15) Aaron Kinney says:

Austin,

Frickin brilliant, my man. Your site is my favorite one to stop by every day, and your comment responses in here even more eloquently explain your position and make quite a forceful argument.

You should have your own radio show and/or write a book or something. I bet it would sell quite well, not to mention spread the good news of godlessness across the Western world. :)

March 23, 2007 at 10:00 pm
(16) Sunny says:

Let me get this straight.

Your first point is:
One good first step (for those who haven’t already done it, of course) would be to cease acting like extremists and fundamentalists are not “real” adherents of the religion – only by engaging the genuine yet unpleasant aspects of one’s religious tradition is there any hope of mitigating them internally.

I don’t disagree. But what are you referring to here? When do religious liberals do this?

Another would be to cease insisting that certain basic religious beliefs should be “respected” in the sense that they should be beyond criticism.

You don’t have to respect my beliefs. Some people say this of course doesn’t mean they have to be taken seriously. But let’s talk about the legal context here because that is what matters. If say, Muslims want to be allowed to eat Halal meat, or Sikhs want to be exempted from having to remove their turbans at school, that is not demanding they be exempted, but that the legal systems take their beliefs into account.

I advocate a tolerant society that accepts difference between people. So atheists should be allowed exemption from swearing to religious texts and religious people should be allowed some exemptions (that do not harm others).

Which points of mine do you disagree with?

Thus far, the NSS doesn’t appear to have done anything to treat them as the same.

No, my problem is that they claim to be advocates for secularism while really they’re advocates for atheism. And they end up confusing supporters and critics as to what they actually want.

March 23, 2007 at 10:50 pm
(17) Bruce Wilson says:

Austin, I know you’re mad – you have right to be, yes.

But I fear your anger is shutting down your mind.

Terry Sanderson’s argument you’ve cited is logically unsupported on a number of counts.

Further, Sam Harris has written that people should be killed solely because of their beliefs.

March 24, 2007 at 7:40 am
(18) Leon says:

How do we stop the suicide bombings in the Middle East? IMHO a public statement to condemn the violence from a world conference of moderate Imams would go a long way in solving this problem. Perhaps they are afraid to speak up for fear of their own life. Perhaps the violence serves their agenda. The fact is that the moderates (with a few exceptions) remain silent. Silence in this case borders on approval.

Christain Nationalists have made significant progress in undermining our democracy. Religious moderates have united to counter efforts of conservative religious groups. The Texas Freedom Network is a good example of an such an organization (see http://www.tfn.org/). The number of people involved in these organizations is rather small and the majority of religious moderates and liberals remain
silent.

March 24, 2007 at 7:48 am
(19) Austin Cline says:

But what are you referring to here? When do religious liberals do this?

It’s actually quite frequent for religious liberals and moderates to deny that the beliefs and actions of extremists — especially the violent ones — are those of “genuine” representatives of the faith. I’ve seen it said that Muslim terrorists are really atheists, because Islam is a religion of peace. I’ve seen it said that anti-abortion terrorists and the KKK aren’t “real” Christians. This is the same tactic which fundamentalists and extremists use: define the faith according to a few narrow and favored doctrines, and thereby exclude everyone else from the “in-group.”

It is because of this tendency that Kelton Cobb, a Professor of Theology and Ethics at Hartford Seminary, writes:

Every religion has its heresies, and heresies must be marked and remembered as out of bounds. Heresies are always children of the religion from whence they come — rogue children, but genetic heirs nonetheless. Heresies are usually borrowed elements of their parent religions, but elements that are broken off and isolated from counter elements that moderated them.

Better than charging these radical Islamists with not being true Muslims would be to ask questions like: What components of this faith lend themselves to these distortions? What counter elements that might keep them in check are being neglected? What dangerous traps lie hidden in its scriptures? What responsibility do the bearers of a religious tradition have for the distortion in its transmission?

The Islam of these terrorists does not do justice to the magnificent, civilized, and peace-loving past of Islam, but it has to be recognized as a “real strand” of Islam. Every religion is like a rope, woven from many strands. Christianity is a weave of the teachings of Jesus, the theology of Paul, the neoplatonism of Augustine, Constantine’s conversion, the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis, the iconography of the Copts, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the piety of the Puritans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights movement, Jerry Falwell, and archbishop Romero.

I don’t like several of these strands, but when I study them I discover that they contain fibers I recognize in my own faith. Inside the racism of the Ku Klux Klan one can find firm beliefs surrounding Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, divine election, God’s sovereignty over all reality, hatred for the devil, absolute faith in the resurrection of Christ, the importance of purity and righteousness, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Klan did not come out of thin air; it is a development within Christianity which I abhor, but in calling myself a Christian I am complicit and have to answer for it.

I cite him both as an especially strong depiction of what religious liberals and moderates should be striving towards and, furthermore, to emphasize that I don’t accuse all liberals and moderates of failing to do anything about this. On the contrary, it was Cobb’s writings that helped me realize that liberals and moderates are going the wrong direction by trying to distance themselves from the extremists. I may be defending Harris against misrepresentations, but I came to agree with his position before I read anything of his and through the arguments of a Christian theologian.

Unfortunately, Christians like Cobb are a tiny minority. It will take much time for his perspective to become more standard, but it’s necessary for this to happen because engaging extremists on this level is the only hope liberals and moderates have for really making much progress. Denying that the extremists are “real” Christians or Muslims is, as I note above, merely playing their game and adopting their extremist “us vs. them” and black/white thinking. In effect, by playing that game liberals and moderates actually move themselves closer to the extremists in attitude and demeanor, rather than moderate the extremists.

But let’s talk about the legal context here because that is what matters.

It’s true that the law matters, but it’s certainly not the only thing that matters and right now it’s completely irrelevant to anything that I have written. It’s also irrelevant to anything in the Sanderson article or in the quote from Harris. You are the only one who keeps trying to bring law into the discussion but your simply talking to yourself. You cannot use either my post or Sanderson’s article to express hysterical fears about what atheists might or might not want to do with the law to religious believers.

The real issue here is something quite different: you egregious misrepresentation of what Harris and Sanderson wrote. They do not claim that liberals and moderates try to “explain away” extremists, as you suggest, nor do they say that liberals directly and intentionally provide cover for violent extremists. Your criticisms were all or almost all directed at straw men of your own creation, not at what was actually written and quoted in the original piece.

No, my problem is that they claim to be advocates for secularism while really they’re advocates for atheism.

Ah, so you now disagree that Sanderson confused or conflated the two. Perhaps you can explain this to Not Sassure.

Since we now appear agree that Sanderson didn’t make that error of confusion, let’s move on to what your real complain seems to be: an organization can advocate secularism while members — including its president — can also advocate atheism personally. You can only raise genuine concerns about advocating both if both are advocated in official literature — or if personal views are expressed in a manner that appears to give them official sanction. Otherwise, you seem to be annoyed about members or officers expressing personal viewpoints on their own time, as if this were somehow improper.

Well, it’s not. If a member or officer of an organization that advocates secularism wants to personally advocate atheism on their own time, they are welcome to do so.

March 24, 2007 at 7:48 am
(20) Austin Cline says:

Terry Sanderson’s argument you’ve cited is logically unsupported on a number of counts.

If that is so, no one I’ve quoted has yet to show how. I’ve demonstrated how, on a number of counts, critics are in fact criticizing Sanderson and Harris for things they have not written. There are specific and easy points in the Harris argument where strong critiques might conceivably be directed, but thus far no one has even tried. Instead, I only see the same criticisms directed at the same straw men, over and over. People with genuine and serious objections wouldn’t do that.

Further, Sam Harris has written that people should be killed solely because of their beliefs.

If so, that’s irrelevant because I’ve never said that Sam Harris cannot be criticized on anything he has written — on the contrary, I specifically wrote “There are certainly valid criticisms that can be made of what Harris says (on this issue and on others).” I’ve merely pointed out that on this issue, people are criticizing him for things he has not written. It frankly doesn’t matter what other horrible, nasty, or atrocious things he might have written — that cannot justify straw man attacks and egregious misrepresentations on this point here.

I know you’re mad – you have right to be, yes.

No, actually, I’m not angry. I’ve read far too many Christians engage in far too many obvious, egregious, and even deliberate misrepresentations of atheists and atheism to be angered by it. However, if I have a right to be angry in this situation, what reason would there be for that if not because people are blatantly and unjustifiably misrepresenting Harris — which, of couse is my argument here? Thus it seems to me that by saying that I have a right to be angry, you are essentially conceding that my position is largely correct.

March 24, 2007 at 8:27 am
(21) Not Saussure says:

I’ve had several people write to me to say that either left religion in part because of reading material here, I’m sure you have, but I was asking specifically about religious fundamentalists being persuaded from their beliefs through reading thorough critiques of them. I’m sure there are some, just as I’m sure there are some thoroughgoing atheists who’ve been converted to Evangelical Christianity by the good offices of the Protestant Truth Society, but I’m willing to bet it’s not a great number.

That’s because, in great part, critiques do have to start from shared assumptions otherwise they get nowhere; that’s basic to logical argument. If X says, ‘Men and women should have equal rights, so it follows they have a right to equal pay for equal work’ and Y replies, ‘But I don’t think men and women should have equal rights, because that’s not what the Bible says, so the rest doesn’t follow,’ then you’ve got to take one step back and convince him that men and women should, indeed, have equal rights. Otherwise there’s no point to the discussion.

You and I might well disagree about whether the next step would be to try to persuade him he’s misunderstood the Bible (which is what I’d tell him) or that what the Bible is completely irrelevant (which, I assume, you’d want to tell him) but neither of us, I think, would try to convince him by reference to the scriptures of another religion.

Think of the way Socratic dialogues work; Socrates button-holes someone, gets him to agree to some basic proposition and then says, ‘Well, since you think that, doesn’t it follow that such and such must be the case?’

I don’t believe that I’ve said anything that suggests people don’t have a right to believe something. Having such a right does not, however, render one immune to criticism — especially when those beliefs are at the heart of actions which are a “nuisance” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

There are two separate points there. If someone wants to criticise my beliefs or lack of them, then he’s welcome to. I have to say, though, that I’ve invited the discussion in some way, I might consider him rather intrusive — it’s doubtless very thoughtful of people to be concerned about the state of my soul, but I’d rather perfect strangers didn’t stop me in the street and attempt to discuss the matter, with the aid of pamphlets — and I might well suggest he goes and talks to someone who might be interested.

However, if he then says, ‘No, but I must discuss this with you, because I think that beliefs are at the heart of actions and I’m concerned your erroneous beliefs may lead you into bad actions’ I’ll tell him we have a perfectly good criminal justice system to deal with bad actions.

Similarly, I’m perfectly prepared to leave him to get on with leading his life according to his — as I seem them — eccentric views, so long as he doesn’t keep on pestering me (in which case I call the police) or try to impose his views, or the consequences of them, on me through political change. And if he tries to do that, I’ll try to persuade people not to support him by deploying political arguments rather than theological ones — ‘his proposed law would make life very unpleasant’ as opposed to ‘He wants this law because he thinks God demands it, which can’t be right because God doesn’t exist.’

One of the main reasons I’ll deploy political rather than theological arguments is that I know that if I do the latter, someone’s inevitably going to stand up and say, ‘Hang on a minute; I have my doubts about this proposed law, too, but I can’t accept God doesn’t exist. I’m afraid you’re completely wrong there’ and, before you know it, we’re arguing about God rather than about why the law’s a bad idea. Since I’m primarily interested in stopping this bad law, that’s a waste of time as far as I’m concerned, and will probably lose me a potential supporter.

I don’t know if you’ve been following the very interesting and good-natured debate at beliefnet between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Here are two chaps who you know are never going to convert each other, but they’re having an interesting time (both for themselves and their readers) testing and refining their views against each other’s objections.

One thing they certainly do agree on, however, is that they both want a secular society. Now, if Terry Sanderson, wearing his National Secular Society hat, comes along to Andrew Sullivan and says, ‘I want to critique your liberal (Sullivan would object to the term, by the way) views because they get in the way of my critiquing extremists,’ Sullivan would doubtless respond in the way he’s done with Harris and, six months later, he and Terry Sanderson will still be having a fascinating discussion. All very well, but it’s not doing anything to advance the aims of the National Secular Society, and to my mind they’d be better off agreeing to have their debates about God somewhere else. If Terry Sanderson had been writing as President of the National Atheists Society, then all well and good, but he wasn’t.

March 24, 2007 at 9:53 am
(22) Austin Cline says:

I was asking specifically about religious fundamentalists being persuaded from their beliefs through reading thorough critiques of them …, but I’m willing to bet it’s not a great number.

Most atheists, at least in America, used to be Christians and became atheists precisely because of critiques of religion (alongside their own, independent research). Not all of them started out as fundamentalists, that is true, but ultimately the same basic principle is at work.

That’s because, in great part, critiques do have to start from shared assumptions otherwise they get nowhere; that’s basic to logical argument.

Some shared assumptions are necessary, but it’s not necessary to share all assumptions — and usually, it is precisely certain assumptions which need to be discussed in order to get at the heart of the disagreement. In my experience, most disagreements are discussed at a superficial level when people should be focusing on much more fundamental differences. Atheists and theists, for example, debate the existence of gods when this superficial difference is based upon more fundamental assumptions about the nature of evidence, inferential reasoning, etc. It is those assumptions which should be focused upon first and foremost.

If someone wants to criticise my beliefs or lack of them, then he’s welcome to. I have to say, though, that I’ve invited the discussion in some way, I might consider him rather intrusive…

I assume you mean “unless” above, and I agree. If I learn, by accident, that someone holsd some belief that’s nonsense, then so long as it’s a belief that they generally keep to themselves and it doesn’t impact others negatively, I almost certainly wouldn’t bring it up. I wouldn’t attempt to engage in a detailed critique of it. However, I would define “invite” broadly as including putting one’s views out in public and advocating for them. You might as well, but I just wanted to make that clear.

However, if he then says, ‘No, but I must discuss this with you, because I think that beliefs are at the heart of actions and I’m concerned your erroneous beliefs may lead you into bad actions’ I’ll tell him we have a perfectly good criminal justice system to deal with bad actions.

Not all “bad actions” are criminal. If your behavior is a problem, but not criminal, then it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss whatever beliefs of yours are motivating that behavior. Someone else might consider it more useful to focus on a pragmatic discussion that ignores your beliefs, but I will deny that that is the only legitimate or valid approach.

I’ll try to persuade people not to support him by deploying political arguments rather than theological ones — ‘his proposed law would make life very unpleasant’ as opposed to ‘He wants this law because he thinks God demands it, which can’t be right because God doesn’t exist.’

I have no problem with a person using political arguments in such a context. They are legitimate, valid, and can be successful. However, I would say that putting one’s theological views into practice in the public realm is the same as putting one’s theological views into the public realm – and that that is an invitation to discussion, debate, critique. Criticism of those views is also a legitimate, valid, and potentially successful tactic.

Now, if Terry Sanderson, wearing his National Secular Society hat…

Ah, so it sounds like you are joining Sunny in moving away from the claim that Sanderson “conflated secularism with atheism.” Now it sounds like you are saying that Sanderson, as head of the NSS, shouldn’t be advocating atheism and/or criticizing liberal religion on his own time.

That’s a radically different complaint from the original one and it is true that the head of the NSS did as you describe; however, I cannot agree that there is anything wrong with this. The debate you describe might be inappropriate in the context of an NSS publication (I don’t know if it would be contrary to their history and practices), but I see nothing remotely inappropriate about it occurring in a place like BeliefNet.

I also don’t see anything remotely inappropriate about a member or officer of such an organization writing an opinion column on his own time to argue for his own views. You’ll notice that there is nothing on the column’s page which specifically identifies him as president of the National Secular Society and on his “profile” page, that occupies a tiny portion of everything said about him.

Sanderson only mentions it himself in the context of explaining the background to how he came to his current views. That’s legitimate and his explanation would not be as good if that bit of information were left out. It’s no more inappropriate than someone referencing their position in a political party or a church organization as part of explaining the background to their views. In none of those cases would I accept the claim that they are “wearing their X hat.”

Now, perhaps I am wrong and there is a problem here that I’m not seeing. If that’s so, however, you’re going to need to dispense with hypothetical debates with Andrew Sullivan and focus on the actual case in hand: where precisely is Sanderson “wearing his NSS hat,” how is he doing so, and how do you think he should have represented himself differently such that the article/argument could otherwise be left intact and eliminate your complaint. Do you wish to argue, for example, that he shouldn’t have even mentioned that he’s president of the NSS? If so, why? Do you wish to argue that as president of the NSS, he has an obligation not to write any such articles at all? If so, why?

Part of my disagreement with your complaint here is that I cannot see what, exactly, the problem is and what you think should have been done/said differently. If you could explain, then it would be possible for me to either agree with you or at least offer a more specific and substantive disagreement.

March 24, 2007 at 2:34 pm
(23) John Halloran says:

Miller wrote: “Even if they didn’t resort to straw men, what are moderates supposed to say? The proper thing to say would be, ‘Fundamentalists are incorrect, just not for the reasons advanced by atheists.’ By itself, this argument gets us nowhere.”

True, if that’s where it stops. I believe that if the moderates, as putative exemplars of the True Faith, want to undermine the extremists and their presumably erroneous, perhaps even heretical, exigeses of whatever scriptures, they’re obligated to confront them at least as directly and forcefully as unbelievers like Harris and Sanderson et al. are doing and clearly confute these misinterpretations.

As Not Saussure has pointed out, this approach is not especially likely to change the minds of most True Believers—although I think it may properly cause at least a few to falter a little, and, where suicide bombers and projectile jetliners are concerned, this would be a good thing—I’m persuaded that it’d be worth undertaking anyway for the sake of the hearts and minds of The Undecided and Confused, as well as for the faith and peace of mind of their moderate brethren. I think it’s a good thing for the long term prospects of the world’s civilizations to put stumbling blocks in the paths of the brutal and uncompromising lest they appear, not only frightening, but somehow right (as in religiously/scripturally correct) in the eyes of those currently in the middle.

That said, I hold only a slim hope that many moderates will ever adopt this approach. For some, it’s just too scary to confront scary people (and most extremists have this scariness in common. It’s an effective response to better arguments by the opposition). For others, it’s a level of awareness that they’d be confronting their adversary on a narrow plank above a chasm and, if not very careful about how they attack, may well throw themselves into the abyss along with that adversary.
Or worse, fall alone!

Thus, it seems likely to me that the principal opposition to religious extremists will continue to arise from among non-believers.

March 30, 2007 at 3:26 pm
(24) John Hanks says:

It is not extremist to stand by the road and hold a sign that says: “G.O.P. Neocon Cult Did 911 to Steal.”

April 17, 2007 at 9:48 pm
(25) Simon Barrow says:

Hi Austin: I fear you’ve misconstrued my comments. (1) My assertion that Harris believes all religion to be “somehow tainted with criminality” (not your “all religion is criminal”) is not some arbitrary invention. It is borne out by the End of Faith – where he makes such statements as ‘intolerance is intrinsic to every creed’ and ‘religion is a living spring of violence’. (2) To suggest, inter alia, that NSS appears to comprise a range of voices, some willing for a constructive engagement with religious persons and others overtly dismissive of that possibility (like the author of the piece I was responding too), is hardly dogmatic. Indeed a humanist friend of mine, who is an NSS member, said it was “a fair assessment”. But then he took account of the qualifiers I included in my formulation, and didn’t eisegetically assume that I was saying all NSS members had to be one or the other – when I wasn’t. Incidentally, you seem to assume that Sunny Hundal is a religious liberal – and then you criticize him for something he doesn’t say. Odd. Best wishes, SB

April 18, 2007 at 6:33 am
(26) Austin Cline says:

My assertion that Harris believes all religion to be “somehow tainted with criminality” (not your “all religion is criminal”) is not some arbitrary invention. It is borne out by the End of Faith

1. What’s the difference between the two? You can’t insist that you meant something else without being able to explain what you really meant.

2. You’re supposed to be addressing the argument he makes here, not arguments he makes elsewhere.

where he makes such statements as ‘intolerance is intrinsic to every creed’ and ‘religion is a living spring of violence’.

As far as the first is concerned, it applies to every creed — religious or not. I won’t comment further without seeing the context of the quotes, though, especially since these comments aren’t relevant to the specific argument you were addressing.

To suggest, inter alia, that NSS appears to comprise a range of voices…

To state outright that the NSS comprises of two kinds of voices — one good and the other not — is not to say that the NSS “appears to comprise a range of voices. Two is far too limited of a “range” to pretend that saying one means you are saying the other. You complain about others dividing people into two polarized categories, then you do the same to the NSS. That’s hypocritical.

Incidentally, you seem to assume that Sunny Hundal is a religious liberal – and then you criticize him for something he doesn’t say. Odd.

You just accused me of attributing words to someone who didn’t say them. That’s not odd, but it is irresponsible.

April 18, 2007 at 11:50 am
(27) Simon Barrow says:

Austin:

The difference between being tainted by something and being something in toto seems clear.

My comment about Sam Harris was about his broader line of argument, on which Terry draws.

“Two kinds” is your term, not mine. I think its clear that I was to averting to a range, but I’ve changed it to “a coalition including” to make that more evident to those who might read it differently.

“Explain away” is not a term Sunny uses.

Best, Simon

April 18, 2007 at 12:12 pm
(28) Austin Cline says:

The difference between being tainted by something and being something in toto seems clear.

Perhaps, but I didn’t use the words “in toto” — using “criminal” as a descriptor does not presume that every facet of what is described is criminal in nature. Nevertheless, even if we assume that there is a difference that makes a difference, it changes nothing: Harris’ argument in question does not rely upon the assumption that all religion is “tainted by criminality.”

My comment about Sam Harris was about his broader line of argument, on which Terry draws.

No, your comment was about “The argument, cloned from US polemicist Sam Harris,” and “the argument” was the portrayal of liberals as “mere adjuncts to extremism.” If you at any point you were trying to comment on something other than “the argument” which Sanderson directly quoted, you never said or even implied so. Thus it appears that your defense for so egregiously misrepresenting Sanderson and Harris is that you weren’t really misrepresenting them — you were just commenting on multiple arguments and assertions without explaining where one shifted to another.

“Two kinds” is your term, not mine.

No, you didn’t use that term. You described the NSS as being a coalition of one group and another group. That’s two kinds, according to my arithmetic. Thus “two kinds” may not be your “term,” but it is sum of the groups you list and is thus therefore also your assertion.

I’ve changed it to “a coalition including” to make that more evident to those who might read it differently.

…and without a notation that a fundamental change in wording has been made. Nice.

“Explain away” is not a term Sunny uses.

I’ll quote the text immediately after the point where Sunny quotes Sanderson stating “the argument from above, i.e. “The danger that these apparently harmless liberals pose is that of enabling the fanatics”: “It may be that religious conservatives like the Muslim Brotherhood / Jamaat/Hizb ut-Tahrir types try and explain away Al-Qaeda, in the same way that the RSS/VHP/BJP Hindu nationalists in India provide cover for the real militants like the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena (and worse). But most ordinary religious liberals just want to live their lives in peace…”

Shorter version: “Maybe some religious conservatives want to explain away some religious extremists, but religious liberals don’t do that.”

July 12, 2007 at 3:22 am
(29) kinzukiwi says:

oookay, how the *hell* is what christian liberals and moderates saying about Sam Harris making a “strawman” of him? By all means, Sam Harris is a strawman. He repeats his favourite little quotes and nitpicks at ad nauseum in every interview he comes into. And he has explicitly stated why “tolerance is wrong”. And yes, his morals are messed up. Consider this scenario: As a christian, i can murder the innocent, rape children, be a racist a-hole, even force jews into a dank camp and starve naked children. But if, after all that, i decide to go to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris and say “Hey, what i did was wrong! i’m gonna be an atheist now!” and they will INSTANTLY FORGIVE ME. For all the pain i caused, for all the suffering i created, they will still forgive me, just because i decide to become an atheist at the last second. This is not a strawman, this is what Sam Harris fully implies with his books. And about the “chain reaction” between extremists, fundies, moderates, and liberals…Let’s examine their seperate beliefs, shall we?

Extremist- Gay people should all be murdered and insulted

Fundamentalist- Gay people should be nagged in the hope that they will change.

Moderate- Gay people are normal and should be allowed to marry.

Liberal- gay marriage isn’t enough — we should also encourage wild public gay orgies.

Soooo let me get this straight-

gay sex is fine = murder the queers?

i’m lost.

July 12, 2007 at 6:15 am
(30) Austin Cline says:

But if, after all that, i decide to go to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris and say “Hey, what i did was wrong! i’m gonna be an atheist now!” and they will INSTANTLY FORGIVE ME. For all the pain i caused, for all the suffering i created, they will still forgive me, just because i decide to become an atheist at the last second. This is not a strawman, this is what Sam Harris fully implies with his books.

Then you should be able to cite references.

gay sex is fine = murder the queers?

i’m lost.

Yes, you must be lost because that’s not what anyone has written.

November 19, 2007 at 6:10 pm
(31) Shannon Cobb says:

As an historian (and a christian liberal), I find myself bemused by Austin Cline’s attacks on my faith. Do Christian liberals give aid and comfort to the enemy? All I can say is They hate us more than they hate you, since we have abandoned the Word of God and have become heretics in their eyes. Plus, to judge us by their standard could be turned around so that we start judging all atheists for the excesses of Josif Stalin and the atheistic Soviet state. Be careful when you start pointing fingers, Mr Cline. You have four more pointing back at you.

November 19, 2007 at 8:00 pm
(32) Austin Cline says:

As an historian (and a christian liberal), I find myself bemused by Austin Cline’s attacks on my faith.

For example?

Do Christian liberals give aid and comfort to the enemy? All I can say is They hate us more than they hate you

So? That isn’t a refutation of anything I have written. There’s no contradiction between the ways liberal Christians can inadvertently provide cover for more extreme forms of Christianity and those extremists disliking liberal Christians. Just because you inadvertently do someone a favor doesn’t mean they will thank you for it.

Plus, to judge us by their standard could be turned around so that we start judging all atheists for the excesses of Josif Stalin and the atheistic Soviet state.

Feel free. First, state explicitly what “standard” you think I am using and, second, exactly how secular liberal atheists provide “cover” for anyone.

Be careful when you start pointing fingers, Mr Cline. You have four more pointing back at you.

Right now, I’m quite comfortable with what I have written — and not the least bit impressed by what you have written in response. If you have anything like a substantive critique to provide, do so. If not, then not only is your comment not helping your case, it’s hurting it by demonstrating a complete inability of liberal Christians to even think clearly on the subject, much less respond clearly.

November 23, 2007 at 4:10 pm
(33) John Hanks says:

Most people are OK except when the run in packs. The good Jews hide the crooked Jews. The good Christians hide the crooked Christians. The good provide a shell organization for the festering scum within it.

November 30, 2007 at 1:11 pm
(34) DamnRight says:

How do christians become atheists… their minds change… one would think that 40 years of christian belief would ensure one’s mindset was quite established… not so, it was due to simple discussions with people of opposing thoughts that caused me to question, study & eventually change my strongly held beliefs… so, we must take every opportunity to stimulate thought in others… this is totally contrary to the christian approach, given they have all the answers & a lock on truth…

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