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.
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.