The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

The Sam Harris Delusion.

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I suppose we could agree to argue, as Sam Harris has, that Islam is more violent and more oppressive than, well, everyone else; playing the oppression olympics.To me this type of arguing seems misleading and thus I remain skeptical of Harris’ conclusions; I think you should too. Don’t take my word for it; let me explain.
Our intuitions suggest that “life is good” in the US but it’s really easy to be white, and male (like Harris), making it even easier to distance ourselves from the problems that riddle our country. Which is to say that maybe our types of “evil” (read: oppression, racism, sexism, violence) might not be as obvious as the blatant human rights violations we can see on the nightly news. So, what are the oppression olympics and are they really worth our time always arguing for a 1st place?

Oppression olympics is the attachment of a moral dimension to oppression. Which is not to say that oppression has no moral implications, but that those moral implications make those who are deemed “most oppressed” are made worthier of our savior attitudes, or criticisms. By doing this a Sam Harris has trivialized oppression effectively underplaying the importance of the experiences of oppressed people.

Why play then? I suggest that this gives a savior mentality to the arguer who, while both setting up and knocking down his own chess pieces, feels justified in doing so because he’s created a false dichotomy to do just that. Allowing ourselves to argue from a position of seemingly clear moral high-ground only aids this delusion.

Historically this type of argumentation has been used to completely ignore intersectionality AKA: the crazy idea that people experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, ability, class, and ethnicity. But to be more fair to Sam Harris, i’d like to use an example that he cites in his recent “response to controversy”, and then casually dismisses.

They never dig for the religious motive behind apparently terrestrial concerns. The game is rigged. This is how an anthropologist like Scott Atran can interview dozens of jihadists—each of whom rattles on about God and paradise—and come out thinking that the doctrine of Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.”

I take issue with this because Anthropologists like Scott Atran can’t just “dig” for their own personal conclusions. Like any good scientists, even Anthropologists must go where the evidence leads them. Within the scientific world bias is the exact kind of thing we want to avoid in order to obtain accurate data. So if Harris really wanted to address his concerns of Atran’s findings, in good conscience, he could analyze his methodology and search for bias or conduct research to find out if he is or is not correct. That’s how a neuroscientist would react to claims they think are unscientific, right? Sam Harris is most definitely not an Anthroplogist and I believe he oversteps himself with great gusto.With that thought in mind my intuition suggests to me that Harris still wouldn’t consider this  reasonable because he would just as well assume that anyone of or related to the Islamic world is lying about all of their value based claims and so he posits that there is no sufficient socio-political context that be reasonably thought to have create ‘this level of violence’ in the middle east.

Tl;dr – Islam. Sounds like a bit of conspiracy to me. One might even go so far as to say a faith based belief, because in light of contrary evidence, Harris continues raving.


Meanwhile within the United States Sam Harris operates from atop a seemingly ‘moral superior bastion’ (though he does not claim this). Remember now, we live in a country in which we no longer have lynch mobs or public hangings. Instead we confine most of our bigotry to structural inequality. We frequently keep it behind closed doors, under whispered breaths, written as legal jargon on otherwise unrelated bills, embedded in the language of power and control, through the lens of a camera and within the commentary on a screen, etc. It’s this type of subtle irony that seems almost in denial of the current socio-political climate of our own country. Maybe Harris could, at the very least, focus on our country before we start trying to save the world.

I recognize that my argument isn’t particularly strong, or even specifically critical of what Sam Harris has said. This is due in part my unwillingness to dive into what I feel are bad claims for reasons I’ve stated above and that Harris likes to quickly dismiss all challenges with little consideration. So surely there is a better way I can convince you that Harris’s arguments really aren’t that great? Let us assume that Sam Harris is right, and  he has successfully rationalized that Islam is ‘uniquely evil.’ The next question is, “what does Sam Harris suggest we do to solve this complex problem?”

He says his position is simple, “We should admit that we know what we are looking for (suicidal terrorists) and that certain people obviously require less scrutiny than others. We should scan everyone’s luggage, of course, because bombs can be placed there without a person’s knowledge. But given scarce resources, we can’t afford to waste our time and attention pretending to think that every traveller is equally likely to be affiliated with al Qaeda.”

While Harris operates under the pretense of ‘just being rational guyz’ he ends in a conclusion that we should start profiling people most visibly likely to be jihadists. At the very least his only success for arguing for profiling is that it would be the “most secure.” This is an important claim to criticize, especially if you consider yourself a Secular Humanist. But why? It’s rather easy to highlight the problem by simply defining one of the several values of Secular Humanism via the Counsel for Secular Humanism.

“Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results. This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. “No god will save us,” declared Humanist Manifesto II (1973), “we must save ourselves.” Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.”

English: Sam Harris

Sam Harris: So goddamn rational it hurts, literally. 

In this case Sam Harris could not likely be a consequentialist as it seems he would rather rationalize away the rights of his fellow citizens for his own sake of mind; his very fear of imminent suicide bombing remains questionable. For that matter, Harris could not be considered a Secular Humanist either. If Harris’ primary concern is really a most secure system, why stop at infringing the rights of anyone profiled as ‘Muslim’? Why even bother allowing people “suspect” of being Muslim to board airplanes; why even allow Muslims to enter the country? Why bother giving rights to Muslims in the first place? Clearly Harris is willing to dole out preemptive justice to even innocent parties by graciously allowing the limitations of their rights, of which we all so greatly enjoy. It is really easy to simply rationalize away all of our human rights if we employ this type of gross rationalism. If Harris is really arguing for a ‘most safe’ system why not replace freedoms with forced predictability by limiting outcomes (behaviors) of agents legally and giving only predetermined sets of allowances? Truly this type of guilty (of suicide bombing) until proven innocent approach is absolutely ridiculous and a “most secure” system like this ensures that the people’s rights are being encroached upon.

Personally, I’m not willing to agree with Harris because he’s reached a “rational” conclusion that involves breaching human rights for his own sake of mind. I cannot consent to that and also call myself a humanist or reasonable. Perhaps rational, but not reasonable at all.




One comment on “The Sam Harris Delusion.

  1. rocketkirchner
    May 5, 2013

    Aaron , good article . i agree. Hitchens and Harris really have bought into ”American Exceptionalism ”. the dirty Arab seems to be the new N. on the block . but of course the Imperial mindset is nothing new for the secular or the religiuos . Hedges calls this ”externalizing evil ”. it is a mockery of true humanism .

    check out my article on this blog from last year called ”Sam Harris flirtation with life after death ”. you might like it .

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2013 by in Author: Aaron Underwood, Uncategorized.
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