The scourging of Sam Harris

By Razib Khan | August 9, 2012 11:56 pm

A reader pointed me to this Sam Harris post, Wrestling the Troll. He asked what I thought of the post, and what I thought of Harris. In regards to Harris I don’t think much. I found The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason to be overly simplistic in the model of religion as a phenomenon which he seemed to hold, and I wasn’t really on board with the normative vision Harris was promoting. To be overly pat Sam Harris strikes me as a traditional liberal universalist. In his imagined future all intelligent men and women will bend the knee to John Dewey, and espouse liberal individualist values. Perhaps. That may be the most likely path, but it may not be a very likely path. Most of his follow up works have struck me as extended polemics and provocations. This is often necessary, but I don’t have a large appetite for that sort of material myself. In any case my faith in reason has limits. Harris’ brutally clean and crisp modernist vision is one which I can’t fully support.

But when it comes to the post there was much I recognized. The issue which Harris faces is that in some ways he has a naivete about the power of reason to shape our future and our present. There is almost a guilelessness when it comes to propositions he forwards which are going to shatter the shibboleths of many of his sympathizers. Recently he has outlined a plan for some level of profiling. Though I’m usually skeptical of the efficacy of profiling because of the coarseness of the implementation (e.g., a pro-Western Ismaili or Sikh is more likely to be profiled because of the obligate demands of their religion in terms of dress, as opposed to less visibly “Muslim” political activists who are the really threat), I don’t think that it is an issue that needs to be taken off the table. But for some of Harris’ critics he has committed a grave faux paus. As someone who has almost certainly been profiled I have to be honest and say that I find it interesting that people tend to become much more agitated by those who outline at least a tacit defense of the practice, rather than the practice itself, which is implicitly ubiquitous every single day. In other words, discussion and mooting of an issue is more objectionable than the reality of the issue itself. I suspect that incest may be an appropriate analogy. We all understand that incest occurs all around us. But we would take great umbrage with anyone defending or proposing a systematization of incest.

Of course I do not believe that profiling is objectionable in the same way that incest is. The root of problem here for Harris is that there are particular commitments on the political-cultural Left in regards to issues of diversity and multiculturalism which are difficult to unpack, but which now have a tribal valence. Fundamentally this is less about a clear principle, and more about bright lines which have grown almost organically to a knife’s edge. The major problem plainly is that Sam Harris is an Islamophobe. And that’s OK by me, as I am an Islamophobe. Islam broadly scares me, and Muslim cultures scare me (the mainstream Muslim position is that someone like me should be given time to repent, but otherwise be put to death as a traitor to the religion of my ancestors). I think Harris brings up real issues with the singular resistance to Western modernity which Islam as a civilization seems to present in our day. For example, the OIC actually promoted an alternative set of human rights, consonant with the views of Muslims the world over.

Unlike Harris I am more sanguine about Islam and its role in the geopolitics of our of small planet. I suspect that right now we are at “peak scary Muslim.” But that does not negate the fact that Muslim societies are profoundly illiberal, and present a vision of human flourishing which is sometimes difficult for Westerners to recognize. One can say the same about South and East Asia or Africa, but the difference between these cases and the Muslim world is that non-Western Asian and African societies do not have a coherent response to the Western vision. Rather, they may not accept Western ways in practice, but in general they have acceded to the power of core Western values and institutions (e.g., freedom of religion is officially protected even in states which violate freedom of religion egregiously in practice).

The problem from my perspective, and likely Harris’, is that Muslims have become part of the unofficial protected classes which are subject to an expectation of sensitivity. Many liberals now conflate Islamophobia with racism, which is an accusation that many people take seriously, and which Sam Harris naturally takes personally. Though many Islamophobes may have racist motives, the reality is that the Muslim religion is a retrograde system of thought on the whole, and liberalizing tendencies may not be aided by a hands off laissez faire attitude. From what I can tell Sam Harris treats Muslims with the same brutal skepticism and distaste which his erstwhile fellow travelers exhibit toward conservative Christians. But Christophobia and Islamophobia are not equivalent. Christophobia is a term used only by the tribe of the political Right. Islamophobia is used only by the tribe of the political Left. Though in the abstract each tribe may recognize the existence of both phenomena, operationally the Right ignores Islamophobia, while the Left ignores Christophobia. A secondary dynamic here are charges of anti-Semitism which are occasionally leveled against atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins for their anti-Jewish statements. The problem here is that Judaism is a religion, while Jews are a people, and our society has a hard time differentiating an attack on the former from one on the latter (in fact, the most prominent heirs of early modern anti-Jewish thinkers are often secular Jews, who consciously or unconsciously recycle older critiques of the insularity and rank superstition of Rabbinical Jewish culture).

An irony here is that though Sam Harris is being blasted for supporting profiling is in part a function of his deviation from his expected profile. If Michele Bachmann came out with Harris’ argument there might be criticism, but it would probably elicit less shock and anger, because these are the ideas you’d expect from Michele Bachmann. What Harris has done, and what he regularly does, is wander off the tribal reservation and express views which shock and disgust his fellow mindless villagers. By referring to Harris’ critics as mindless villagers I’m not implying that they’re necessarily wrong. Above I indicated that I don’t think much of many of his arguments. But, many of his critics are reacting from emotion, and a sense that he has violated important communal norms. Not a reasoned objection. Rather, reason here is passion’s servant. I think Sam Harris gives reason too much credit, and is too uncritical of its power. But he practices what he preaches, and expresses highly heterodox and uncomfortable viewpoints, probably because he doesn’t take into account the power of social reasoning, and group conformity.

The tribal mind has only a few categories. If Sam Harris goes off the reservation on such an important topic, what is he? To borrow a page from fashionable academy, Harris becomes the Other. The sensitive consideration given to one’s own tribe goes out the window, as Harris is now an outcast. Clearly then one can now probe his motivation, reframe his own argument toward rhetorical advantage without any sense of the importance of fair play. Bad people do not deserve fair play. Sam Harris has voted himself off the island, and now he swims with sharks. Good luck to him!

Where to go from here? Sam Harris ends with a note on comments:

Incidentally, readers often ask why I haven’t enabled comments on my own blog, since they build a sense of community and generate traffic. Needless to say, I know that I have many smart and knowledgeable readers who have valuable insights to share on any topic I’m likely to touch. My reasons for not enabling comments are essentially the same as those given by Seth Godin on his blog. You can read his justification here. I also can’t spare the time to read hundreds of comments in an effort to determine whether they would contribute, however subtly, to the problem of noise and defamation that has now sucked me into its vortex. This is not to say that I don’t care what my readers think. As you can see, I do. And I do my best to read your emails. But generally speaking, I’m at the limits of my bandwidth and have to draw the line somewhere.

I spend between 1/3 and 1/2 of my time on this blog engaging with and reading comments. Why? This weblog has a moderate amount of traffic, so so far I’ve been able to manage the discussion. But it is always of the essence that the discussion be productive and value-added. The problem is that too often active blog comments boards become a forum for dueling trolls, or self-congratulatory back-slapping between fellow travelers. I have no patience for either. When a commenter says something which implies that they know something I ask directly: what do you know? This is a critical juncture. If the commenter does know interesting and illuminating things we all benefit. On the other hand, if the commenter is too stupid to even know that they don’t know what they think they know, you will most assuredly not hear from them again. Such commenters have no one to blame but themselves for setting up an implicit challenge in terms of threshold of value-add.

The ultimate point is not to burnish your own reputation, bask in your own intelligence, or win a futile argument. Rather, the goal is that we all know just a bit more about the world around us than we did before you began to write.

MORE ABOUT: Sam Harris

Comments (28)

  1. Ben

    It’s true that the term “Islamophobia” tends to be used by the left to mean *any* criticism of Islam, or even discussion of tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. But a phobia is supposed to be an *irrational* fear. There is certainly plenty of irrational fear of Muslims on the right in America and the UK – Tea Partiers who think Obama is a stealth Muslim, Pamela Geller, the EDL who think there’s a real risk of sharia law being imposed in the UK, etc.

    Instead of identifying as an Islamophobe yourself, maybe it would be more accurate to distinguish between rational and irrational fear of Islam.

    The problem with profiling is that it’s not an effective security measure. Plots that are stopped have historically overwhelmingly been stopped long before they get to the target – once a bomber gets to the airport or train station, they will usually not be detected, even with de facto profiling.

    In addition, focusing scrutiny on “Muslim-looking” people will only incentivise terrorists to find bombers who don’t “look Muslim” – and since airport screeners probably mainly think Muslims look “Middle Eastern”, there are many potential recruits who would evade profiling (white converts, Indonesians, Ughyurs etc.). In fact, several actual bombers haven’t been “Middle Eastern”: Richard Reid the shoe-bomber (white/Afro-Caribbean), Nicky Reilly (white). And of course the Met police couldn’t even tell a Brazilian from a West African, even though the police following him would have heard him make a phone call.

    There’s also the argument that the more intrusive profiling gets, the more likely you are to alienate Muslims who would alert authorities to terrorist plots. It was widely reported that the liquid explosives plot which triggered the current ludicrous security guidelines was stopped because of a Muslim informant.

    The security expert Bruce Schneier has explained all this in detail to Harris before:

    I am not a fan of Islamic or Christian values, but in my day to day life as a UK citizen, I am way more scared of Christians, who have far more power to impose their values on me (especially because the Christian-dominated US can drag the UK into wars, and thinks a sensible response to climate change is to pray for rain).

  2. Darkseid

    I give Harris a free pass for going to bat for a fellow atheist, islamophobe. I did the same for Kitchens even though i felt some of his positions were contrarian. Im not going to be too picky if you’re willing to stick up for me.

  3. kirk

    The followers of Christ have more bombs and more ways to get them in your living room or den than the followers of Islam. Whether its the Christianist or Islamist that have actionable schemes to get control of those weapons and get one into my bedroom — I don’t loose any sleep over. In any case, these movements have a primary goal of turning back modernity; good luck with that. Their most valuable weapons in this struggle would be an asteroid or erupting caldera and they may not be around after that happens.

  4. matt

    “these are the ideas you’d expect from Michele Bachmann.”

    no, they aren’t. since when has she ever been as articulate as Sam Harris? absolutely never. his ideas are born out of empathy and concern. hers are born out of hate and prejudice. there is a huge difference in the way they deliver their arguments.

    “he has a naivete about the power of reason to shape our future and our present.”

    i don’t have the time to represent his views fully and completely as his writings more than suffice should one actually read them. however, that line is simply not true.

  5. I feel it’s unfair to characterise the criticism of Sam Harris as being wholly down to the fact that he’s supposed to be a man of the pragmatist left. The criticism, I feel, comes down from his supposed adherence to reason and science, whilst remaining largely impervious to evidence which doesn’t support his thesis about Islam. As it happens, many of the people he castigates as being unreasonably PC in the face of Islamist murderers in fact share the same concerns he does, they just a) realise that Middle Eastern society and Muslim culture are not some sort of contiguous community and so it’s simply lousy thinking to suggest that they are b) acknowledge that simply declaring tribalism to be barbaric isn’t very interesting and holds no moral worth and c) actually conduct research in the field, which Harris deliberately ignores. It’s not because Harris is posing as a man of the left, it’s because he’s posing as a scholar and an expert on a subject on which he holds no qualifications, research or expertise. Furthermore, his thinking on issues like torture and racial profiling leave a lot to be desired. I’ve written about this further over at if you’re interested.

  6. Yes, profiling could force terrorists to choose people who don’t look like a traditional terrorist. However, this would make it more difficult to recruit, so on the whole I think it’s fine.

    The profile/don’t profile question is often put as an either/or question, but I think that’s silly. The decision of whether to pull someone aside for screening should be random, but biased towards characteristics of previous known terrorists. (For instance, let’s say there are twice as many male terrorists as female terrorists. In that case, you would want to, on average, question twice as many men as women.) And you would want to bias those results towards pure randomness to the extent that terrorists actually do recruit those who don’t look like past terrorists.

    To say that no profiling should be done at all is silly. After all, a coma patient is extremely unlikely to be dangerous, and should be treated as such until terrorists demonstrate the creativity to disguise themselves as coma patients.

    Schneier likes behavior detection instead, which is basically profiling based on actions rather than heritage, and I think that’s fine too. But I think it’s also fine to profile based on prior probabilities established by who someone is as well as what they do, as long as it’s done based on real statistics.

  7. Siod

    Re the post “But, many of his critics are reacting from emotion, and a sense that he has violated important communal norms. Not a reasoned objection. Rather, reason here is passion’s servant. I think Sam Harris gives reason too much credit, and is too uncritical of its power.”

    I think this is exceptionally interesting; what is the process in which ideas or lines of reasoning overcome tribal taboos? I mean, it seems they eventually do overcome their taboo if they’re valuable enough to the tribe. And I wonder if taboos work as a societal heuristic or immune system against ideas with perceived negative to low expected value for the tribe. Without tabooing what would the world look like?

  8. just to be clear, not too interested in having a discussion about profiling. rather, something like #7. i actually disagree a lot with sam harris on specific issues, as i thought was clear in the first paragraph, but which some don’t seem to be internalizing. instead, i’m alluding to the fact emotional/tribal triggers of outrage seem to be at work in some cases in reaction to his assertions, because i have noticed he has almost an endearing lack of subtly when it comes to making arguments. i don’t care for that much myself, but it’s an interesting window into how group shibboleths are enforced.

    for example, i stated above i don’t agree with sam harris on specific issues of substance, but since the whole of the post seems to agree with his post on trolls, i’ve gotten coded as agreeing with sam on issues of substance. so several comments, published and unpublished, spend a lot of time arguing with me about issues where i don’t even disagree with the commenter. but, since i’ve signaled that i’m not a member of the group, i must disagree with the group….

  9. Mitt's Magic Underpants

    I like the post very much. Not to feed the distraction, but I find it amazing that people can state “without fear of contradiction” that they know the efficacy of profiling. Tell it to the Israelis.

    But more important, re: too much faith in reason. I do think this is a reasonable point — human beings simply aren’t rational. *But* I think Razib gives far too short a shrift to the importance of having someone like Harris out there strenuously arguing for reason and rationality. Otherwise, how will we progress, even a bit?

    Thanks again for the post (and to SH for tweeting it, which is how I found it).

  10. prasad

    My particular probe of this is to rely to a reasonably high degree on pairs of issues that are at least superficially similar, but which provoke sharply divergent responses from the parties (basically on the death penalty versus abortion model):
    – racial profiling in airports versus racial affirmative action in college
    – biological (or cultural) gender differences versus biological (or cultural) sexual orientation differences.

    The point obviously isn’t that particular combinations of views are intrinsically untenable, but that you’d expect views not to be almost perfectly -anti- correlated, at least if the driving force were the argument, not team membership.

    I was also mildly surprised to see you walk back the incest/torture analogy (in terms of underlying dynamic, I mean, as opposed to higher disapproval of advocacy than of practice). It seemed like a pretty good one in the sense that worlds without them tend to be nicer than those with, but arguments defending proscriptions tend to be fairly hard (and subject to plenty of counterarguments and cases). Taboo works better in other words.

  11. Mig Hein

    This is an excellent piece that I enjoyed and which provokes a lot of thought.

    Mr. Khan writes:

    “If Sam Harris goes off the reservation on such an important topic, what is he? To borrow a page from fashionable academy, Harris becomes the Other.”

    The polarization that is so prevalent in the US and Canada today stems from just this mindset. Or maybe the polarization causes it. Maybe it’s a positive feedback loop. But it IS truth that if a politician or intellectual figure takes a single position that is not in accordance with the view of his supporters, then that person is castigated and cast out. So what happens? More and more legislative votes are split along strict party lines.

    This binary view that is the hallmark of the culture war here is stifling critical examination of issues because in this climate, who dares to ask the hard questions (profiling, torture, abortion, etc.)? Harris at least tries to examine the world and is brave to publish his thoughts although it does seem naive of him to be surprised by the vitriol at this late date.

    Hitchens suffered the same villification for having ONE view that did not gel with his fan base. Probably the greatest advocate for freedoms and free speech in modern times became hated for having a different take on a complex issue. That’s all it took.

    Our western society, particularly North American nations, had better remember how to disagree with reason and critical faculties or compromise is dead and the culture war may be waged by two groups of totalitarian thought police. Yeah, that’s a bit of hyperbole.


  12. I think Razib gives far too short a shrift to the importance of having someone like Harris out there strenuously arguing for reason and rationality.

    perhaps. as i said, i’m not much of a consumer of SH’s material, but i see the utility of his production. this is my attitude toward the ‘new atheism’ in general. i’m not one, but it has its role. more specifically re: SH, i think his positions are overly elegant and simple, and i have broad sympathy with many who have criticized him for his airbrushing of the complexity of the issues. but, a lot of the reaction that i saw above wasn’t of that sort at all, but a primal scream of outrage (mind you, not all). that is what i think SH was describing in his post, and that certainly rings true, because i myself am regularly the target of such volleys.

  13. #10, right. i think the objection that democratic republics taking into account social-demographic variables being problematic is not the heart of the issue, as some rhetorically claim. if the ends are ones which they support (e.g., affirmative action, giving mothers preference in child custody cases because of the reasonable presumption of their being the primary care giver for young offspring, etc.) then the tool is acceptable. if not, then not. discrimination is just colloquially now differentiation/discernment you disagree with.

  14. #11, the polarization which of you speak is probably just a social-level manifestation of normal human cognition.

  15. Adam

    “””As someone who has almost certainly been profiled I have to be honest and say that I find it interesting that people tend to become much more agitated by those who outline at least a tacit defense of the practice, rather than the practice itself, which is implicitly ubiquitous every single day. In other words, discussion and mooting of an issue is more objectionable than the reality of the issue itself. “””

    For most people, contributing their views and ideas furthering the narrative(normative) of the group is their only way to confront “bad” actions that they aren’t part of or see near them.

    Why would you be surprised at that?

  16. Ben

    The strength of the reaction may be partly down to racial profiling being a taboo for ‘progressives’, but I’d say it’s mainly because he’s flying the banner of rationality while arguing for something manifestly irrational, as Schneier points out (and regurgitating Schneier’s many excellent points is why everyone wants to get into arguing the details of profiling). I conjecture that the kind of people who read ‘new atheist’ blogs tend to be aware of Schneier and to have a negative opinion of the TSA.

  17. Sara

    As a middle eastern Atheist and a fan of Sam, he truly keeps disappointing me with his LACK of understanding of Islam and the Middle East. His profiling argument was a disaster, I couldn’t get any of my middle eastern contacts, all of whom atheist, to even understand how a neuroscientist could descend to such a low level, almost equal to white trash bigoted islamophobes. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for profiling people who SHOULD be profiled, like a couple dressed in ridiculous Arabian customs including burka. But truth is, and Sam is ignorant for not knowing, that these very radical Muslims get VIP treatment at the airport, while the Iranians, the Turks, the Indonesians and the Lebanese get the worst kinds of profiling and believe me, I have yet NOT to be profiled in airports after 911 and I am a Persian woman wearing mini skirts. These disgusting Gulf Arabs are the ALLIES of the USA, in every way and if they don’t fly private jets, they almost always fly first class and never even feel what it means to be profiled. Indeed, I have noticed, the TSA agents don’t want to be too obvious, so once they took me out of the line and an old white lady, but they did NOT do the same to a family of Gulf Arabs standing behind me. I also come from a very different level when it comes to western opinions on Islam and the Middle East. The LACK of knowledge of you guys on the history of the regions and the atrocities west has committed in the region which has directly, LITERALLY, led to a creation of Islamic Radicalism couldn’t be more obvious, but you all have your heads deep in something…why is that? Why can’t Sam Harris talk a bit of anthropology, after all he is a neuroscienctist, he should understand, that tribal regions create tribal brain wiring, and perhaps, it is NOT Islam that is the problem, Islam itself is created to MATCH a tribal region and has been selected to survive because it has worked in that region and worked just fine. Before west went there of course. When I was in school in Iran, not once we talked about hating the west bc they were Christians, indeed, not once we talked or attacked religions, we talked in length about politics and how west has committed the crimes in the region to steal the OIL ( and battle communism) which are the main reasons terrorism even began. In my case, every Iranian is mad of the US and UK interference in 1953 and overthrowing Iranian secular democracy so you could steal our oil…why is SAM so mute on such crimes? Why doesn’t he understand that perhaps, many of the terrorists, or at least some of them, don’t have reasons other than religion to hate or to kill? Why? Human animal can only take so much….when CIA sent agents to mosques of all Muslim nations, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, South Ossecia & Chechenia, Lebanon, Syria, etc to identify RADICAL Muslims who were as in the fringes as the radical Christian militias and then hired them, trained them, supported them, so they could battle communism and their local leaders ( often secular leaders), what the F***K was the west thinking about? Don;’t you guys have common sense? Don’t you understand what you did in that region, which is incredibly selected to be tribal and not forgetting or forgiving is in the BLOOD of people ( nothing to do w religion again), you unleashed something that you could never destroy? Not only you destroyed democracy and secularism which was well on its way in the middle of 20th century as Iran and Turkey and most of the Levant regions, you radicalized the region further and sent it back to the 7th century, plus you created a whole class of Muslims who only belonged to the fringes and mental asylums and that is of course the radical fanatics who are now if not the majority, certainly the most powerful and loudest. For a country like USA that can identify its best ally as Saudi Arabia…I am just speechless…I mean you can’t find a country there more backward than Saudi Arabia…anyways…Start by reading on Operation Ajax and the Green Belt Stratgey that ruined the Middle East and created terrorism to begin with. Until Sam and other Atheists who LIKE to talk about Islam and Muslims are mute and ignorant on such significant geopolitical issues that directly led to 911 ( and west is equally if not MORE at fault), to us rational atheist middle easterners, you are all bunch a NEOCONS. And that is what Sam is. I am still a fan of his science talk and I will follow him, but he has really descended in our world. His ignorance and indifference comes from having a sever lack of empathy, and I must say, most of the fans who LOVED his profiling argument fall in that category too. We really need an atheist writer with knowledge and care for the middle east to start talking and that way, the impacts on the youngsters of that region who by in large have come to HATE Islam would be tremendous. There really is a need.

  18. white trash bigoted islamophobes.

    nice 🙂

    again, please don’t conflate my own position with sam harris on the substance of geopolitics. i have affiliations with some of the most anti-neocon right-wingers out there.

    sara’s comment is part of the problem. she assumes that i have sam’s opinions on geopolitics, when i don’t. in fact i happen to know a lot about middle eastern history and ethnography (more than she does almost certainly), and written extensively on this. this is one reason i disagree with sam. but since i have given some ‘signals’ that i’m not on ‘her team’ the natural inference is that i’m talking out of my ass. this is a conventional problem with people who assume because i don’t accept their specific narrative i must have some really stupid views

  19. Isabel

    “white trash bigoted islamophobes.”

    Related to the OP, whenever I object to this and similar terms on the science and academic “liberal progressive” blogs, pointing out it’s a bigoted term itself with an ugly history, even now used primarily to put down lower class people, I am instantly attacked. No matter how liberal my previous comments have been, I am accused of being a racist, getting my talking points from Fox News (which I’ve never watched) etc. And yes, subjected to a lot of condescending comments attempting to educate me.

  20. Karl Zimmerman


    Is it right to assume you are, or were at one point, a fan of Justin Raimondo?

  21. #20, i think i gave money at some point in the mid-2000s to fan is too strong of a word. raimondo is a little wild-eyed for my taste 😉 but am skeptical of american empire….

  22. Brel

    “Muslim societies are profoundly illiberal, and present a vision of human flourishing which is sometimes difficult for Westerners to recognize. One can say the same about South and East Asia or Africa, but the difference between these cases and the Muslim world is that non-Western Asian and African societies do not have a coherent response to the Western vision. Rather, they may not accept Western ways in practice, but in general they have acceded to the power of core Western values and institutions”

    What do you think of the “Asian values” concept that came into fashion in some East and Southeast Asian countries several years ago? Leaders who promulgated the concept tried to set it against Western values (chiefly individualism and democracy). Most East Asian countries have democratized as they have become richer, but it remains to be seen if China will. Do you think China might become powerful enough to be able to form a lasting counter-philosophy to Western values like Islamic countries have?

  23. What do you think of the “Asian values” concept that came into fashion in some East and Southeast Asian countries several years ago? Leaders who promulgated the concept tried to set it against Western values (chiefly individualism and democracy).

    basically became a non-entity after the 1998 asian flu. ‘asian values’ has had as long term influence as ‘japan inc’ or the petro hegemony of the 1970s. it was an idea which seems only to have been dependent on a very specific set of economic conditions (no one quite knew how long japan was going to stay ‘lost’ in ~1995, and the ‘asian tigers’ were still booming).

    Do you think China might become powerful enough to be able to form a lasting counter-philosophy to Western values like Islamic countries have?

    i think it is a possibility. japan is an example of a country which has integrated aspects of modernity, basically western culture, and retained its distinctiveness. to be fair one can say the same about even iran, which allows women to vote and has had female politicians. this is a form of radicalism pioneered in the west.

    a major difference between ‘asian values’ and ‘islamic values’ though is that islamic values and the isalmic world is already very international. in this it is like western values and the western world. this is in contrast to india or china, which are civilizations constrained to particular nation-states (and their near abroads). india and china may retain their distinctiveness, but on the international stage they may not challenge the west because their solutions are national, and they don’t have a universal vision. liberal western modernity does. notionally so does islam, though it is far weaker, and far less appealing. but within already muslim nations it does have some appeal and staying power in relation to international modernity, which is derived from the west.

  24. Sandgroper

    Sara never heard of paragraphs?

    “Asian values” as used in public rhetoric in the 90s = crony capitalism. Yes, it died instantly in the rhetoric with the Asian financial crisis.

  25. Adrian Lee Oliver


    You seem to be a well rounded and informed mediator on the subjects addressed on your blog. I have been a devoted reader of Sam Harris for a time now, I have enjoyed his books as well as the articles on his blog. Perhaps it speaks to my gullibility, however, had he never posted the article on his blog, Wrestling the Troll, it may have never occurred to me that his positions were capable of instigating the level of controversy that I have discovered them being engaged with in comment threads and even the blogs of reputable individuals.

    I can not help but to begin to get the impression that I may have missed something. Admittedly, I had, until this point been resistant to the proposition that the preachments of Mr. Harris were lacking in depth, or as you say”overly simplistic”, but after reading your post I was given to the impression that you may just be on to something, if only the more pertinent of your criticisms weren’t so vague.

    I hope that you will permit me to solicit a bit of clarification on a few points.

    I have read Mr. Harris extensively, and though it is true that at times he is guilty of over-extending the reach that many of his conclusions intrinsically allot, I have always expected that these instances had more to do with trying to fill up blank pages than an attempt to truly be serious about supplementing an argument, and though that criticism stands, I have been pleasantly surprised to see Harris address the accusations of prose for the sake of prose, by slimming down his efforts into bite sized e-books.

    As for the “normative vision that Harris was promoting” in the sense of the cumulative summation of his argument, could you correct me if I have misunderstood, but the message that I have gathered from his writing had absolutely nothing to do with a philosophical attempt to define religion as a phenomenon. Though, the identification of the parameters of the effect of religion/organized superstition/mass delusion has had on society at large was a necessary measure in the benefit of the actual message that I took from Harris’ work. Harris, in his own words, brilliantly summarizes the ideal that he would have his work promote as “conversational intolerance”.

    In what way can it be said that advocating for skeptical inquiry in the face of false certainty is an overly simplistic position? How would you seek to amend this position to make it more astute? More importantly, if indeed you agree that my summary of Harris’ over all stance is accurate, can you please elaborate for me on exactly how it qualifies as a vision that you can not fully support?

    Next, you say: The issue which Harris faces is that in some ways he has a naivete about the power of reason to shape our future and our present.

    Perhaps my first question should be to ask you to clarify your meaning when you use the word reason, but that would sound patronizing. I assume that by reason ,you mean the ability to judge consequences, past and present, based on the most accurate representation of the of the world that an individual is aware of.

    It would be a cheap shot, and a frivolous betrayal of etiquette, to begin with the assertion that ALL behavior is guided by reason, but not all reason is guided by the best representation of the world that humankind has reached to date. I only mention it here because that distinction may not be immediately evident to some of your readers, and it is important to note. Unless you believe that all opinions are equal, and that there exists such a thing as objective morality, or perhaps that “things” will eventually work themselves out, then espousing the possibility that anything other than reason has the ability to shape our future and present is simply nonsensical. Or if in fact I am incorrect and there exists another force (other than ignorance) which wields equal claim to the potential to shape human history, I hope that you will share what it is.

    I had not anticipated that my comments here would be so… wordy? I would hate to give the impression that I am attempting some sort of an ambush by accosting you with a never ending script of inquiry. Though I do hope that you will engage me towards a resolution of my confusion on the controversy surrounding Harris, I would like to extend to you the opportunity to first respond to the issues that I have introduced here. If it is a productive exchange, I hope to continue with a few more issues.

  26. Mazyaar Mazandarani

    Sara’s comments are in line with most educated Iranians who have a very low level of awareness about Islam and compare it to other so called religions. Islam gives a”carte Blanche” to followers, including beheading and Rape, it is the only belief system that sanctions criminal activity by a DIVINE power and has not been challenged on these points yet!
    Oil money spend lavishly, and Islam as a tool to combat Communism has prevented it so far. I am sure Sam will be delighted to debate Ayattolah Sistani or Khamenei on TV in prime time!
    He did not have to go thru what he is going thru if general awareness about Islam was at an even basic level among his tormentors!

  27. Lilli

    Bottom line for me: the human species has a superpower. Our brains. If we don’t strive to ask the tough questions, if we fail to set high standards of reason for ourselves and the society we live in, if we refuse to confront issues that are controversial, then… well, we are wasting a superpower.

    Sam Harris is highly controversial. He is blunt. He is kind of like Intellectual Eminem (spitting it into the mic) and I, for one, appreciate it. If nothing else, his writings, lectures, and debates get people talking, arguing, searching for a way to back up their points. That’s good.

    There is an implication in calling SH “naive” about the power of reason– one that doesn’t set well with me. As a former teacher, I believe strongly that you must set the bar high. Why? Well, expectations have a lot do with how a person performs. Sam Harris sets the bar high, expecting and believing that it is possible for humans to stretch their minds, to utilize reason to increase happiness and decrease suffering. For me, when SH is called naive with respect to reason, it makes me a little… disappointed in Razib Khan. In my opinion, it immediately lowers the bar for humans. Accept that we are not reasonable and get those lofty ideals outa here? Nah. Not for me!

  28. ETK

    Re: Blog post and #7

    I also read “Reason: the God that fails, but we keep socially promoting….”. It would be intersting to know how much variation there is in individual opinions that are quenched due to group conformity, and where the threshold is for popular opinion to start to move. Do you perhaps need a single entity (or a few entities) that has enough clout within the tribe to break taboos and broaden / change the accepted opinions?

    Also, I find myself having a lot of opinions that would make me an outsider in my tribe. Makes you wonder are the likes of me and Harris in the minority, while the vast majority really just agree with the consensus and don’t think about it, or are most people just masking their disagreement with their tribe? My take is that it would seem strange in an evolutionary sense that we would be inclined to disagree with each other. Therefore questioning of accepted norms might just a side product of a certain level of curioisty and intellect.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post, found here through a friend and might become a more regular visitor.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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