Breivik, terror and Islamophobia

Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist.

And now that we know he was not a Muslim, but that he was instead perhaps a Christian, probably a Mason, and certainly an ethnic nationalist, much outrage has resulted from the selective use of words like “terrorist”, or “fundamentalist” – once he was revealed to not be Muslim, some columns and Tweets stopped referring to Breivik as a terrorist. This again exposes a bias, whereby something that is the subject of extreme fear and emotive reaction is illegitimately associated with a particular religion.

But this is the problem with stereotypes – they are blunt instruments, which even when grounded in something true, can be so broad as to capture many cases that are not true. And this one is founded in something true, despite how impolitic it might be to say so. The fact that Breivik might be a “Christian fundamentalist” cannot obscure the fact that much of what we describe as “terror” in the recent past has come from those that we caricature as “Islamic fundamentalists”.

The fact that some Muslims will say that Muslim terrorists are “not real Muslims”, and that Christians will say that Breivik is not a “real Christian” is irrelevant. People who commit acts of terror get their mandate from something or other – and if a belief system can be interpreted to provide that mandate, this is a reality (and a problem) that that religion has to deal with. And as Sam Harris pointed out, it is an unfortunate fact that as far as religious belief systems go, Islam is correlated with a disproportionately large amount of oppression and intolerance of competing world-views, including secular world views such as those that promote gender equality.

The violence in Oslo is no excuse for Islamophobia. But we don’t need (another) one – as with all religions, Islam teaches you that propositions with no (or poor) evidence can be regarded as fact. Religions allow you to engage in metaphysical Ponzi schemes, whereby debts can be paid later down the line – rather than you being accountable right now, for what you do in this life. Again, it doesn’t matter that this might be a poor reading of whatever scripture, from whatever tradition, you want to thrust in my face – these traditions are open to such interpretations in ways that others are not, and they have to take responsibility for that.

Breivik’s problem – or our problem, that is presented by people like Breivik – is that he is perhaps insane, and that he believes nonsense so strongly that he is prepared to kill for it. Any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief in nonsense is at least partly culpable. If a particular religion has a larger component of such nonsense than another – such as routinely allowing rights violations and perpetuating gender inequality – it is proportionally more culpable.

This remains true, no matter how many Muslims, or Christians, are appalled by the actions taken in the name of their chosen fictions.

38 Replies to “Breivik, terror and Islamophobia”

  1. You are right, Jacques.

    And yet, I think something may have gotten a little twisted here.

    People rightly complained that the ‘terrorist’ attack was assumed to have been perpetrated by Muslims and that it ceased to be called a ‘terrorist’ attack when the perpetrator was discovered not to be Muslim.

    To these complaints, I think, it is incidental that Breivik is a Christian — the important point is that he wasn’t (as was assumed) a Muslim, not that he *was* something else. In other words, the complaint against the media’s Islamophobic assumptions would been just as valid had Breivik turned out to be an Hasidic Jew, a Pastafarian or an atheist.

    I don’t mean to set up a straw man here, because I don’t think you’ve disputed this. But I think you may have suggested something that’s not apparent from the facts, which is that Breivik’s Christianity was an important factor in motivating his behaviour. To me, judging by what I’ve read of his blogs and so on, it seems that Breivik was motivated by passionate conservative political views (anti-multiculturalism, to name one clumsily) and not by religious ones.

    The most similar instance in recent memory is Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which seemed to be motivated by selective disagreement with US foreign and domestic policy. His religious outlook was mixed (http://tinyurl.com/39da4ms).

    In other words, I think the “nonsense” he believed that led Breivik to carry out his atrocity seems to have been political nonsense, whatever other nonsense he may have subscribed to. He doesn’t seem to have done it “in the name of” Christianity. So, however justified ‘religiophobia’ may be in general, it seems a stretch to take this case as a justification for it.

    1. Thanks Patrick – good points that I can’t disagree with. I’m more reacting to some of the commentary that has emerged in light of the religion link, where people are again trying to condemn religiophobia in general. But it’s correct that this isn’t a neat example of that, at all.

  2. Hi Jacques. You’re essentially saying that all religions must cater directly for any and all possible interpretations of it’s principles and values; no matter how paradoxical they may seem to it’s leaders and followers?

    I’m not sure how religions should be held accountable for other individual’s eisegesis of its scriptures?

    That would be like saying the Government of South Africa must be held accountable if someone were to take the constitution of SA and cuts words out of it, then pasting them onto a page to say “It is acceptable to murder children.” and proceeded to indiscriminately shoot children whilst proclaiming they are merely following the constitution of SA in doing so.

    Surely a comprehensive exegesis of what the scriptures (including my example of the constitution of SA) say should be the standard whereby we hold religions to account?

    1. If the Constitution was vague enough to license murdering children, of course the drafters of it should be held accountable. There is no authoritative exegesis of what scriptures say – it depends largely on who you consider authoritative in this regard. Errol Naidoo considers himself equally devout and accurate in his interpretations as you do, and can marshal equally nonsensical arguments to support (for example) his homophobia. By contrast, “women have equal rights to men” is far more difficult to misinterpret (or interpret differently). So yes, until ceiling cat comes down and tells us, unambiguously, that Errol is wrong and you are right, this is a mess that the religious have perpetuated, and are partly responsible for.

      1. What I was trying to get across is that anyone can pretty much twist any text to their pre-conceived bias/objective.

        You, Errol and I can argue back & forth whether scripture is vague or not. Same goes for the constitution of SA (I can be quite pedantic if I put my mind to it), but my point is that our agreement on whether it’s vague or not is irrelevant given that any bias can be wrenched from its pages…even if it is as ridiculous as “It is good to ambush and shoot as many children as possible on a Labour Party youth camp” because that’s what the bible says.

        I would say that there are two types of interpretation going on here, 1) eisegesis which is a completely false interpretation and virtually impossible to curb given freedom of speech and 2) exegesis which can be established easily from a reading of the entire text at hand and is a valid interpretation & yardstick to measure peoples actions against.

        Unless you’re suggesting religions to go around and “police” everything people say about their religions and impinge on their freedom of speech to ensure a proper exegesis of scripture (which is what governments do to ensure a proper exegesis of the constitution)?

        1. I guess I’m trying to establish if this is what you’re saying:

          1. Religions are based on their scriptures
          2. Individuals can interpret many/anything from scriptures (misconstrued or valid)
          Therefore
          3. Religions are to be held responsible for these interpretations (misconstrued or valid)

          1. 1. The beliefs of the religious are (often) based on their scriptures.
            2. There is significant disagreement and ambiguity as to what constitutes a valid interpretation.
            3. Therefore, our ability to discount an interpretation as illegitimate is compromised.
            4. Therefore, when atrocities are committed with a purported religious warrant, the religious cannot simply deny responsibility for those atrocities.

            1. Okie dokie. Is this a valid extrapolation of your argument:

              1. The beliefs of atheists are (often) based on their “scriptures”.
              2. There is significant disagreement and ambiguity as to what constitutes a valid interpretation.
              3. Therefore, our ability to discount an interpretation as illegitimate is compromised.
              4. Therefore, when atrocities are committed with a purported atheist warrant, the atheist cannot simply deny responsibility for those atrocities.

              Why not? 😉

  3. Okay, if we’re going to be literal about this even though I put scriptures in quotation marks, let’s change premise 1 to:

    1. The beliefs of atheists are (often) based on their writings.

    Is the argument still invalid? If so, why?

    1. The scare quotes around ‘scriptures’ don’t change the meaning of what you were suggesting, nor my response. People write about atheism, sure – but atheism is not a belief system, or a faith, so the premise is still faulty. ‘Their writings’ are primarily negative (in the logical sense of the word), in that they point out what’s wrong with your belief systems.

      1. I think you’ve painted yourself into an intellectual corner.

        If religions are responsible for everything that anybody out there can absurdly wrench from their writings (which are called scriptures), then so is everyone else that writes a positive statement about the world (that includes atheists who, even though they say God doesn’t exist, are nevertheless making a positive statement about reality using negative language). If you are unable to see this then you’re playing a semantic shell game of the worst kind, and applying moral rules to others whilst exempting yourself (and others that hold to your views) from them in the same breath (what would Kant say?).

        I can easily apply your argument about the interpretation of religious writings to atheism and the interpretation of its writings; and hold you just as morally accountable for the atrocities committed in the USSR, Cambodia, North Korea by lunatic despots who were also atheists.

        You would be unwilling to accept it I’m sure and I will apply that same defense to religion; what’s good for the goose…

        If you are really seriously expecting religions to police the exegesis and eisegesis if its scriptures in the world (like governments & courts do to ensure the constitution is properly interpreted) then how does that hold with your views on freedom of speech?

        I cannot see an intellectually sound reconciliation for what you’ve written and obviously believe without incurring serious moral bankruptcy.

        1. And I think you’re channelling Lane Craig in that most dishonest (or ignorant) comment. Paragraph 2 starts with a straw man, then asserts a fallacy as fact. Paragraph 3 misses the point entirely, while again repeating a fallacy that’s been regularly debunked in the literature (and by me – to you – on Twitter). Paragraph 4 can thus be ignored. Paragraph 5 is again a straw man. Paragraph 6 is obvious, yes – you cannot see it. Apparently I can’t help with that, and will no longer be trying to.

          1. Jacques…ditto for you I’m afraid. Congratulations on the artful dodge and the inability on your part to properly reason through what you’re writing, or engage in rational debate about it.

            Your obtuse responses to pick apart my argument with ill-conceived logical fallacies is testimony to a very juvenile approach to the concept under discussion. Without any application of charity and grace you retreat behind a “wall” and throw “stones”; in this case logical fallacies.

            Let me know when you’re ready to discuss this topic properly?

  4. It’s still an interesting argument Jacques, because surely an atheist does subscribe to a particular philosophy? That philosophy, a secular philosophy, might have quite a strong link to evolutionary theory, and therefore would have a link to atrocities committed by other atheists in history who held to similar philosophies.

    I think Patrick raises the most valid point – this is about politics more than anything else. And if we look at the past, even atrocities committed by ‘atheists’ or ‘atheist governments’ have more to do with politics than anything else.

    Even all this Muslim terrorist stuff is really about politics. The issue is how much you or anyone want to make mix their religious / philosophical views with politics, where they draw the line and how they do that.

    That’s why I believe when Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” he was saying something profound that even to this day we haven’t gotten right – separate religion from politics and things become clearer.

    In your case, I would say separate secular philosophy from politics. It would be very interesting to me to see if that can be done and if you think it should be done, and why or why not? Because surely a purely secular government running on a purely secular philosophy can become as much a tyrant as any religious one. And indeed, history shows us this likely to be the case.

    1. An atheist does not believe in god(s). That’s it. There is no obligation on an atheist to subscribe to any other proposition, including your example of evolutionary theory. As I said in my reply to Patrick, I see his point on this particular case. That doesn’t mean that unfalsifiable, non-evidence based worldviews cannot be more dangerous than others, which was what I was saying in making the general case that ‘religiophobia’ is justified. Of course a secular government can also be tyrannical – they’re just less likely to be, because they would believe less nonsense. History does not show what you suggest, either. Atrocities aren’t committed in the name of atheism – they have sometimes been committed by people who might happen to be atheists (some of whom were not that at all, despite religious attempts to distort the facts).

  5. “An atheist does not believe in god(s). That’s it.”

    Yes, I’ve heard this stated before. But surely a religious person believes in god(s) and that’s it as well. So it’s in the clear as much as atheism. The difference comes when it’s about what theology or philosophy someone subscribes to. The term ‘theist’ is probably more appropriate.

    “Of course a secular government can also be tyrannical – they’re just less likely to be, because they would believe less nonsense.”

    That, of course, is a matter of opinion and perspective. Secular opinions may very well be nonsense, but it’s not nonsense to them, just like any other worldview.

    What I really find interesting by the statement, however, is this word ‘believe’. What does a secular government then ‘believe’ and how will it not use the sword to ensure I believe the same? Is it right that there should be a prevalent ‘belief’, ideology and philosophy in government?

    “History does not show what you suggest, either. Atrocities aren’t committed in the name of atheism.”

    Likewise, atrocities haven’t really been committed in the name of ‘religion’ but rather in the name of Allah, Jesus, or other gods – indicating they have been done in the name of a particular type of religion, a certain theistic theology. But not in the name of religion or theism.

    Likewise, ‘secular atrocities’ (using that term just to be clear) are committed in the name of particular secular philosophies.

    Religion is a term as neutral as atheism when it comes to political and theological leanings. This is really my point.

    Which is why, for me, when atheists attack this general term ‘religion’ as something intrinsically evil and saying their viewpoint is superior, they are speaking nonsense. How is atheism superior when it actually doesn’t consist of any philosophy of any kind? How is theism / religion a worldview but atheism is not? The argument should be against particular types of theism, or otherwise do not argue for a superior worldview at all.

    1. You’re right that a “religious person” believes in god(s), with no other propositional content necessarily entailed. But this is straying a little from the topic of the blog post, which is Islam (and partly, Christianity). Specific religions involve more than just belief in god. As I was saying to a Christian friend over lunch just now, if there was agreement on how to interpret scripture, we wouldn’t have as many sects, denominations, flavours of Christianity – whatever you want to call them. The point is simply that it’s an interpretively messy space, where no authority exists to arbitrate between differing interpretations. You might think one wrong and another right, but that would be because of background beliefs in what god intended to convey, and what therefore counts as legitimate and illegitimate interpretations. To me, she’s a vindictive, petty, sexist tyrant, because the logic by which ‘you’ rationalise the Old Testament being superseded by the New is convenient rather than principled – it relies on a particular interpretation, which isn’t clear to an impartial reader.

      Having said that, what it entails is that it becomes more difficult for you to decry interpretations you don’t like as illegitimate. It’s comparatively easy to do so with something like the Bill of Rights. What I was saying in the post is that this entails a moral responsibility on the part of the (specifically) religious – they’ve created a space in which these misinterpretations are relatively easier, and need to deal with that problem. It’s always struck me as absurd – and a strong moral failing on the part of Christians – that it’s people like me (atheists) who take people like Naidoo to task for his homophobia, which Christians are generally silent.

      “Of course a secular government can also be tyrannical – they’re just less likely to be, because they would believe less nonsense.”
      That, of course, is a matter of opinion and perspective. Secular opinions may very well be nonsense, but it’s not nonsense to them, just like any other worldview.

      This again confuses the issue – secular folk aren’t compelled to have any particular opinion (besides denying theism). Nonsense opinions exist everywhere, true, but my claim is that you add a layer of confusion when you introduce the metaphysics that religious folk do.

      What I really find interesting by the statement, however, is this word ‘believe’. What does a secular government then ‘believe’ and how will it not use the sword to ensure I believe the same? Is it right that there should be a prevalent ‘belief’, ideology and philosophy in government?

      It believes whatever it believes, and may be more or less tyrannical than one that gets its warrant from gods. But as I say above, it’s not compelled to believe anything as a result of its secularism. What seems to be lurking beneath your question is a presumption that religion somehow confers a moral sense or obligations that isn’t entailed by secularism – I hope that’s not the case, but I don’t see how this could be interesting without such an assumption. But yes, I think it is right that there is a prevalent ideology/philosophy in government – this would involve a commitment to increasing the welfare of those that are subject to that government.

      “History does not show what you suggest, either. Atrocities aren’t committed in the name of atheism.”

      Likewise, atrocities haven’t really been committed in the name of ‘religion’ but rather in the name of Allah, Jesus, or other gods – indicating they have been done in the name of a particular type of religion, a certain theistic theology. But not in the name of religion or theism.

      Likewise, ‘secular atrocities’ (using that term just to be clear) are committed in the name of particular secular philosophies.

      Religion is a term as neutral as atheism when it comes to political and theological leanings. This is really my point.

      The first bit I’ve dealt with – I agree that particular religions rather than a general religious dispositions are the issue (right now). But on ‘secular atrocities’, they aren’t committed under a secular banner in the sense that ‘I do this because there is no god’, or somesuch. You can’t define secularism as simply ‘anyone who doesn’t mention a particular god’ – my dentist is not a secular dentist, just because he never mentions god. They’re committed on grounds of racial nationalism, or whatever – by (usually) evil people – and all I’m saying is that it’s easier to find an excuse for your evil if you’re accountable to something hypothetical.

      Which is why, for me, when atheists attack this general term ‘religion’ as something intrinsically evil and saying their viewpoint is superior, they are speaking nonsense. How is atheism superior when it actually doesn’t consist of any philosophy of any kind? How is theism / religion a worldview but atheism is not? The argument should be against particular types of theism, or otherwise do not argue for a superior worldview at all.

      It’s superior because it’s evidence-based. In the same way that you see no reason to believe in Zeus, I see no reason to believe in the Christian god. I require fewer extraneous hypotheses, and my worldview (in this regard) respects empirical data more than a religious worldview does. Beyond that, I could of course be just as (or more) irrational than a religious person in all other respects. Atheism is a worldview only to the extend that a-toothfairyism is a worldview, ie. not at all – it’s simply a rejection of another worldview. And yes, as I’ve said, I can see what you’re saying about the argument needing to be about particular types of theism, and I can agree to a point. But I’d nevertheless have a problem with all of them, simply because they require me to believe something overwhelmingly improbable.

      1. Thanks for the response Jacques. Unfortunately, having gotten the flu, I’m too drugged up today to answer but I’ll probably answer tomorrow 🙂

  6. The reason the belief of the athiest (there is no god) is superior to the belief of the theist or religious person is simple – all the available evidence points to a lack of gods existence, and unless he presents himself/herself/itself in someway, athiesm is the only realistic option.

    Consider that very, very few athiests would carry on being athiests if they were shown god or shown absolutely verifiable evidence of suspention of natural order by a supreme being, they would then adjust their views in accordance with the evidence presented.

    However, the religious believe what they believe on faith, that is they believe it with incomplete and or non sensical evidence and with weak arguments supporting their belief. They are not prepared to change their views even as science slowly squeezes out the remaining gaps god seeps into. Most notably evolution/creation “controversy”.

  7. Hi Thomas,

    I’m not being arrogant or anything here, but I really consider your answer overly simplistic and hardly giving any real reason why the atheist ‘belief’ is superior to a theist belief. And I’d venture to say that you ought to be careful with this word ‘belief’ especially if you’re wanting to make commentary on ‘faith’ 🙂

    I’m always somewhat perplexed at the kind of answer you provide because it makes no account for experience. It’s perfectly possible that, if there were a god, that he/it might have revealed himself /itself to one person and not another, which would render your ‘evidence’ simply your own interpretation of your own experiences, but nothing more than that. But this is a philosophical point that does touch on presuppositions and is probably beyond the scope of anything we could discuss here.

    Lastly, I would question the way you seem to be using Science. You seem to imply that if Science shows us X then that automatically means Y, when in fact all it may mean is X. But perhaps I’m being guilty of being simplistic now.

  8. Hi Thomas. Unfortunately you can’t have evidence for nothing, or to put it in other terms make a deductive argument with “lack of evidence”, as your proof that atheism is superior to theism. You’re welcome to try your hand at an inductive argument however 😉

    But then a theist makes the same inductive arguments and there is no “higher” epistemic validity to the scientific method that gives an atheist the “silver bullet” you claim.

    You argument about science can be reduced to:
    1) Science is epistemologically superior to any other method
    Therefore
    2) Science is epistemologically superior

    That beg’s the question…

  9. Hi Ryan

    I appreciate the question of individual experience, and if an individual believed that they had had some or another experience of god that it would be difficult to critisize their claims. However, given that very, very many claims of contact with god or revelation via god are contrived to say the least (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPo411ysueM). I’d say one is in safe ground to rule out individual experiences in favour of scientific method.

    Given that the accepted scientific method before something can be considered scientific fact is 5 sigma; that is, the probablility of it being some kind of error is 0.0002% (somebody can check my calculation here I may be wrong!) , I think there should be clear reason why we should accept the scientific method over religious claims to revelation through god/jesus/allah etc.

    My “argument” about the superiority of the scientific method is not as listed by Joseph, rather it is a claim I am prepared to make about the method, thus it is not the circular jumble you have assembled, as Jacques has repeatedly pointed out here, you seem intent on creating straw men and then attacking those, be welcome to if you so wish, just don’t expect to be taken particularly seriously.

    I agree with your final statement Ryan, that science doesnt create absolute “fact” in the sense of something totally certain (literally something 100%). For example anyone must admit that there is still some chance that god did make the animals and that the fossils are just the devil tricking us. I’m prepared to accept that, given the evidence we have, there is some chance of this interpretation being correct. However I think it also needs to be recognised that, given the current evidence, some form of evolutionary biology provides a near infinitely more compelling solution, backed unanamously by those who study this field.

    Basically all science does is provide our most compelling view of a natural phenomenon based on the available evidence. Consider the development of physical laws, from Aristotle, to Newton, to Einstein.

    I used belief in the sense of holding something to be true. I’m not sure which word can be used instead of belief? Either way, I think there is a vast distiction to the belief I have that, for example, Newtons laws of motion apply at slow speeds, and the belief a religious person has that god is listening to their prayers, and that is the distinction I am trying to highlight.

  10. Hi Thomas. You say “My “argument” about the superiority of the scientific method is not as listed by Joseph, rather it is a claim I am prepared to make about the method, thus it is not the circular jumble you have assembled, as Jacques has repeatedly pointed out here, you seem intent on creating straw men and then attacking those, be welcome to if you so wish, just don’t expect to be taken particularly seriously.”

    Check out http://thesaurus.com/browse/argument and you’ll find, “Main Entry: argument
    Part of Speech: noun
    Definition: effort to convince; presentation of support
    Synonyms: argumentation, assertion, case, claim, contention, debate, defense, discussion, exchange, expostulation, grounds, line of reasoning, logic, plea, pleading, polemic, proof, questioning, reason, reasoning, remonstrance, remonstration”

    I would say that you are failing to recognise the invalidity of your own claim (see all other synonyms above) by either deliberate obfuscatory language or genuine misunderstanding. If the latter then we can reason together in mutual fraternity towards a satisfactory conclusion, if the latter then I will level your same dismissal at you; “you seem intent on creating straw men and then attacking those, be welcome to if you so wish, just don’t expect to be taken particularly seriously.”

    1. Apologies for the finger trouble…change the above second “latter” to “former”.

  11. I think you should check this definition rather than the definition for argument.

    Argument requires logical structure, which is what you tried to impose on my assertion. Basically I make the statement that scientifically verifiable claims are superior. My support for this is evidence of science having been, thus far, on a slow progression toward showing us the reality underlying our world.

    Thus I do not provide an argument. Or at least not in the logical, philosophical, sense.

  12. Hi Jacques,

    This is a reply to your article, “See what I mean? Or maybe you don’t…”, on Daily Maverick. I still like my anonymity :).

    I think you are correct in asserting that atheism should not be viewed as anything more than a lack of belief in god(s). Atheism is not an ideology and there is no common ideology among atheists. I also think it is incorrect for religious people (and others?) to blame atrocities associated with Stalin, Mao etc. or even good things done by atheists on atheism. No act, neither good, nor evil can be blamed on atheism. It would be like blaming the actions of a conservative on his non-stamp-collecting. Nonsensical.

    The followers of a specific ideology tend to have an effect on the world. Atheism on its own won’t have any effect on the world. So it is no surprise that atheists tend to have different ideologies. Some conservative, some liberal, some Libertarian, some even positively homicidal. Like any other human being, atheists have an effect on the world, however it is not due to their atheism but whatever ideology they have. This much should be obvious.
    Take for example Brevik. The ideology that best describes him is an ethnic nationalist. He calls himself a Christian, he said he is “first and foremost a man of logic,” calls himself “economically liberal” and said “it is essential that science take an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings” and he is a fan of Darwinism (albeit a crude form). No doubt scientists, Darwinists, logicians, economic liberals, scientists and Christians do not want him on their side. His actions are responsible for this. I think if we are to be consistent then we should admit that religion, science, logic, Darwinism and economic liberalism ALL “create the epistemic space in which harmful interpretations are possible” and they can be used to support ideologies that are discriminatory. Of course this last bit is redundant since there is not a single ideology that isn’t discriminatory in ANY way. Every single ideology is discriminatory towards some other ideology in some way. The point is, if you give the immoral a plausible excuse (be it religion, logic, science, Darwinism, economic liberalism etc.) to be wicked, they’ll find a way to use it

    With regard to your statement that “But any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief on the basis of faith rather than evidence are at least partly culpable for horrors committed in their name.”
    I can agree to that. When faith is described as believing something without evidence, I can agree that it is wrong. The problem though is that I think you would be hard pressed to find ANY person that believes in something without evidence. The child that believes in the tooth fairy believes in it because his parents told him it exists. Theists believe in God, because God by definition is responsible for why there is something rather than nothing. Reality is their evidence they will say. The evidence for being a Muslim is in the Koran, a Christian it is the Bible. Every person believes in something because they have some evidence for it. The problem is with the concept of evidence, not faith (not as described above).

    With regard to your comment about “Where moderate religious folk refrain from taking the bloodthirsty injunctions in their scriptures literally, it is because of secular morality.”
    I think the proper wording is “secular law” as in laws not derived from any religion-related laws. The concept of “secular morality” is vague and I think nonsensical. There is no such thing IMO. There is no common set of morals that are secular by nature or derived from secularism. The major approaches to the concept of morality and ethics are moral relativism, virtue ethics, consequentialism, natural law, deontology (each with its own subgroups). Harris’ view, although secular, collapses to utilitarian consequentialism and has been rightly criticized by atheist and non-atheists. E.g. http://lacrimae-rerum.org/?p=97.

    All of the best.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Anonymouse (which I’ll probably move to the re-post of the Maverick column later). Regarding ‘secular morality’, I agree with you that there is no such thing in any official or agreed-upon sense. But I don’t think replacing it with ‘secular law’, because that seems vulnerable to the exact same objection you make to secular morality. The way I intended the term to be interpreted was simply as ‘non-religious morality’. As for The Moral Landscape itself, I’ll have to write about that in detail one day, because I’m not impressed with many of the criticisms of it. They often rely on one (contested) reading of Hume, and also often seem to be the product of fears that the enterprise of academic moral philosophy is being exposed as somewhat masturbatory. I say this as a (ex) professional moral philosopher.

  13. Jacques, I await your post about the criticisms of Harris that you were impressed with :).

    1. In the absence of such a post for the moment, I can at least say that the Blackford review left me nodding my head at various points. You and a few others seem to have developed the impression that I agree with Harris on far more than I do – it’s far from that clear, though.

  14. Jacques, I think the problem is that we don’t know what your position is. Our faulty “impressions” are due to a lack of clarity from your side I am afraid to say.

    It is probably best if you lay out your position in a clear manner. Maybe write a book or something. But I guess a post would be nice, no matter how long.

    1. Unjustified inferences can’t be my fault. I have said a few things about Harris in the past, but they aren’t compatible with the interpretation that I buy into his project unreservedly. Readers are entitled to infer that I’m sympathetic, sure, but in the context of all the output here, it’s far more plausible to think that I’m some sort of contractarian rather than a utilitarian of the Harris sort.

    1. Definitely, yes – very influential, at least at the start of my attempts to engage with this stuff in the late 80’s. Others worth mentioning would be Rousseau, Narveson, and more recently Binmore. But a key problem – and one that a person like Harris points out, albeit in a somewhat derogatory way – is that neat labels are most often pretty meaningless in modern moral philosophy. There are too many things to qualify, disclaimers to make and so forth. So we’re mostly pointing at family resemblances, and then so much drilling-down is required to resolve all the minute detail. In short, a book would most probably be necessary, as you point out.

      Binmore, for a little more context, is a challenge in that he presents quite a compelling case for relativism – something which I’ve always been strongly opposed to (and which Harris is of course also). So that’s my current challenge – I can’t help but be persuaded by Binmore’s arguments, and need to re-read it a few more times to try find a way out…

      1. I think Binmore is on the right track. I would even go further and state that all forms of contractarianism just comes down to or collapses to relativism at the end of the day. I don’t think you will find a way out. But it will be interesting to see how you find your way.

        Maybe Harris can help. Apparently Aristotle’s views do not totally align with his view but he, Harris, did say Aristotle’s “virtue ethics is resonant with my views”.

        So maybe start there. Oh, I think he said it in an interview on 702 one day. He had an interview about his book. Download 20110414JCWBEST.mp3 from here (http://www.pod702.co.za/podcast/bestofjenny/) if you want to listen to the interview.

  15. Or is it Locke’s version? No wait, it must be Hobbes… or surely it must be Rousseau. Throws us a bone :).

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