Category Archives: Harris

Permission to have that conversation

In May, Maajid Nawaz presented this important talk at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum. It’s important because he attacks the concept that religion, and especially Islam, should be protected from criticism. And especially he attacks the concept that we should not talk about the problem of Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism. We should not avoid calling a spade a spade.

Maajid says the West, and particularly the USA, has it all wrong. The policies of intervention, imposing “democracy” and the killing of terrorist leaders and civilians via bombing and drones, will never solve the basic problem – that extremist jihadism appeals to many Muslims, even western born Muslims.

He is advancing the need to counter jihadist ideologies with alternative moderate policies – but points out this is hardly happening. And how can it happen if people are too “politically correct” to discuss and condemn actions like the stoning of women, female genital mutilation, imposed marriages, etc.

Maajid has the right credentials to back up his message. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and used to advocate jihadism.  He was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 and 2006. His experience led him to change his thinking and he left Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounced his Islamist past and called for a “Secular Islam“.

Now he is a co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.

Maajid wrote about his experiences and changes of thinking in his book Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism.

More recently he discussed these problems with the atheist Sam Harris. Their discussion is published in the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

Similar articles

Promoting confusion

A great feature of the scientific endeavour is that our ideas, hypotheses and theories are usually tested against reality. In fact we get very worried when we can’t do this. Consequently there has been some philosophical discussion and concern around speculative ideas or hypotheses like string theory (really hypotheses not theories) and the multiple universe ideas.

But, in some areas of philosophy and theology reality can safely be ignored. And here all sorts of weird and wonderful preconceived ideas can get justified  using a logic which basically boils down to mental gymnastics. I have always found debate with post modernists and theologians is a bit like jelly wrestling. Without reality to fall back on anything goes.

The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett gave an interesting talk, “The evolution of Confusion,” on theological justification at the Atheist Alliance International convention last month. Its based on his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore. Atheist clergymen are probably far more common than we might think. And all clergymen have problems in their profession which require theological arguments to resolve, or at least to patch up for the moment. This leads to a weird style of logic and argument – hence my feeling of jelly wrestling.

This is a fascinating talk. I understand the research will be published soon. Hopefully it will also be available in a popular format like a book.

Dan Dennett is the author of many excellent books, including “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“. He is also featured in the video “The Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009.
From ‘Dan Dennett talks about purposely-confusing theology and how it’s used. He also describes his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore, and introduces a new term: “Deepity.”‘


Similar articles


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Reading in retirement

Scientific research is a very creative and personally satisfying process. However, researchers often find that the inevitable specialisation and concentration on limited aspects of reality can lead to a lack of understanding and appreciation of discoveries in other fields.

Since retirement I’ve appreciated the opportunity to read more widely. I find myself returning to subjects I haven’t considered for decades, or have neglected. I’m learning about the amazing discoveries humanity has made (behind my back) in the meantime.

I was encouraged to check out, and summarise, what I have been reading by the reading lists blogged by Damian and others. The number of books I have got through (in four years) shocked me – perhaps I’m a bit obsessive, or maybe its just the freedom retirement has given me.

I can recommend most books on the list – but definitely not every one (guess which).

Continue reading

Arguments against atheist morality

Benjamin O’Donnell seems to be writing a series of articles on the ‘new atheists.’ His one on dogmatism (see New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?) was refreshing. His latest article Morality and the ‘new atheism’ is also well worth reading. In this he points out that the “problem of morality” is commonly used to criticise the “new atheists” (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens):

“how, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?”

O’Donnell breaks down the criticisms into five arguments:

  • The argument from scripture
  • The platonic argument
  • The argument from the mysterious origin of morality
  • The role of religion in moral progress.
  • The sanction argument

Discussing moral progress he says:

“The story of moral progress seems to me to be the story of the marriage between our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be altruistic, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer reasons to put people into the “out group”. Our psychological “in group” expands until in some people it covers not just the whole human race, but sentient non-human animals too.”

But he does accept a role for religion in moral development:

“religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has helped enormously. Just as alchemy made many discoveries that were built on by chemistry, and astrology made some discoveries that were built on by astronomy (mostly in the field of cataloguing astral bodies, but still useful discoveries), Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular moral philosophy has built upon. (Similar claims can be made for several other religions.) Not for nothing did Richard Dawkins once write an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”.

“But religion has also contaminated the stream with some very strange and unfounded ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is a “soul” that enters the human zygote at conception, or that there is an afterlife in which kindness is rewarded and cruelty is punished. And it is religions’ reliance on the dogma of faith that makes it so hard to use reason to sort the good ideas from the bad.”

Related Articles:
New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?
Moral authority
Christian problems with morality
Religion and the “New Atheists”
Morals, values and the limits of science
Is religion the source of morality?
Crimes of Communism and Christianity
Religion and morality

New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

There has been a strong reaction to the recent books of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). These authors have been labeled as the “New Atheists” and their books have received many angry (and defensive) reviews and attacks from religious believers (and some non-believers). However, those I have read seem to be attacking “straw men,” reacting to imagined insults or even to be based on ignorance – the reviewers appearing to have read no more than the titles.

Continue reading

Religion and the “New Atheists”

The New Republic recently interviewed Booker Prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan. Although the interview covered his books and the internet I found his comments on religion and atheism particularly interesting. So often we hear religious beliefs justified today with the claim that they have arisen naturally in all societies and this demonstrates they are an inherent part of human nature. As McEwan points out this claim is simply refuted by the evidence that so many people don’t have these beliefs.

I reproduce the relevant sections of the interview below:

Continue reading

Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective

In the first part of this series I described the current situation in New Zealand. In particularly how current attitudes towards religious diversity ignore the non-religious. The problems with this attitude are evident in the National Statement on Religious Diversity. This second part prevents a personal perspective on atheism and argues that there is no reason to consider atheists different to people with other beliefs when we consider human rights.

Aatheist beliefs personal perspective

The words atheism and theism are limited descriptions of beliefs as they only define one small aspect – non-belief or belief in a god. Personal beliefs are of course much more extensive than that – they include this but are not defined by it. So, we cannot characterise or understand the beliefs of all “atheists” by that word alone. I can only give my own perspective, although I believe that many non-theists hold similar beliefs.

My beliefs have a strong philosophical alignment with the scientific motivation and method. Emotionally and spiritually there is a powerful sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the natural world and our process of understanding it. This stretches from subatomic particles to the cosmos itself. They include an appreciation also of the beauty of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements and a strong appreciation of personal and social values and morals. I discuss these further below.

Continue reading

Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand

This is the first of a four part series. The complete series was originally published as one article in the AEN Journal special issue on Faith and Ethnic Communities and will also be published in Open Society, the journal of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. I will post Parts II, III & IV over the next few days.

Part I: Religious diversity in New Zealand.

Efforts to develop understanding and cooperation in New Zealand are concentrating on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.

Continue reading

For the glory of God

Many of the critics of the “New Atheist” books claim they attack a “straw-man” religion – that they describe an extremist, minor religious faction and then use this to characterise and attack all religion.

Bishop Randerson in New Zealand, for example, said that the beliefs criticised by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are not his (Randerson’s). Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says: “Whenever believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’.” Many Christian spokesperson reject fundamentalist beliefs and biblical literalism and claim it is unfair to criticise religion for these beliefs.

A fair comment. But the problem I have with these sort of rebuttals is that actions and word often differ. Bishop Randerson may claim he believes in a god as the “God of love” rather than the biblical god. However, he then spoils it all by officiating at Christian ceremonies which do imply belief in a biblical god and goes so far as to hold conversations (prayer) with this god.

Continue reading

A value in religious mysticism

samSam Harris created some controversy with his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below). Most attention was drawn to his suggestion that use of the term “atheist’ was diversionary and that atheists should instead define themselves by activity around positive issues. Unfortunately the second part of his speech has been completely ignored in the resulting discussion. This is a pity because he was suggesting that some religious traditions have aspects that are of value to modern societies, a value which should be appreciated by non-theists as well as the religious.

Continue reading