I was sent a link to a YouTube video in which two Muslim apologists argue against Sam Harris, of course without making any logical, empirical arguments, while using regurgitated bullshit and misrepresenting Harris's views. Take ten minutes to watch the video, by London Dawah Movement (2014), and then we'll delve into the ignorance of what these two men say. Also, I use the recent interview between Harris and Cenk Uygur to represent Harris's views (2014).
Irrational belief through a lens
They start by calling Sam Harris a god of atheism, more or less. I'd like to point out here the distinction between being an informed academic who can argue for his views and being a totalitarian authority figure who cannot be questioned, like the gods of the Bible and the Quran. Even Sam Harris's own followers, by which I mean people who read his work, not people who worship him, don't necessarily agree with everything he says. This is okay; he is not the ultimate authority, and he can admit if he is wrong.
They then say one of the things they wish to refute is Sam Harris's argument that religious belief is irrational, and more specifically that belief in miracles is irrational. Here's where the irony literally made me laugh out loud. They argue that it is rational to believe in miracles, because the complex universe has laws and was created by their specific god, who has the power to do as he pleases (except end misery, of course). They basically argue that belief is rational because the belief is true because the belief says so; they presuppose that their god exists without laying out an argument for it. That is not rational.
Thereafter, they misrepresent Harris's views by saying he generalizes and puts all religions in the same basket. This is untrue. He criticizes all religions, but from a base of logic, he makes the argument that it is illogical to assume all religions are equally good or equally bad. What Harris says is that there are ideologies that are more prone to violence, just like there are ideologies less prone to violence.
Harris also does not generalize about Muslims. He readily acknowledges that there are good Muslims, but based on the Quran, he can say the doctrine of Islam is barbaric. He says Christianity is barbaric, as well, mentioning that the Old Testament is even worse than the Quran, but contradictions in the Bible and the peace-loving Jesus make it easier for Christians to cherry pick the good parts, whereas the Quran is a straightforward story of conquest and spreading the faith.
I'd like to argue that it is illogical to always say the worst variants of religions don't represent the true faith. I don't have the same knowledge as Harris, who could probably make this argument better, but the more literal interpretations of religions like Islam and Christianity represent the core material better, i.e. things like the subjugation of women and discrimination of homosexuals, both of which can be found in the holy texts.
The apologists then go on to criticize the notion that the universe and life are the product of chance, without a creator. They seem to dislike the idea that we are an "accident" and even say that, while Harris views religion as irrational, it is actually irrational to believe in scientific theories that contradict a creator and intelligent designer, like the Big Bang and evolution. They say it is irrational to believe the universe didn't have a creator.
The problem with what they're saying, and why they are, indeed, irrational, is that they presuppose that life can't come from non-life and presuppose that the ability to think can't exist without a greater mind that made it so. The irony here, and there always seems to be irony involved in apologists' arguments, is that they think it is irrational for our intelligence to exist on its own, and so they argue there must exist an even greater intelligence that does exist on its own. This goes against all logic. If our universe can't exist without a designer, who must be even more complex than the universe, then why can the designer exist? He warrants an even more complex designer.
They also commit the standard sin of an apologist: comparing evolution to something complicated just coming together by chance, in this example the glasses one of them wore. There have been worse phrasings of this argument, like an explosion tossing debris into the air and the debris falling down and randomly constructing a house. Or, as I saw in the comments section of the video, someone compared monkeys becoming humans to a transformer becoming a car. It's just absurd.
Evolution is first of all a gradual process; it's not about an instantaneous change, like in Pokémon. It is second of all not random. Genetic mutations are random mistakes, yes, but the selection of which genes are passed on and survive is not random at all; they are, indeed, naturally selected based on environmental pressures and mating rituals. Evolution perfectly explains the complexity of life, without the need for a creator even more complex than the creation. Evolution is simple, yet nuanced and capable of countless fantastic forms of life. Something to be noted, though, is that evolution is not a mind or something that physically exists; it is just a process.
As for the universe, to say it is perfectly ordered is an exaggeration, I believe. To argue that our planet is perfect for life and therefore God exists, which they didn't do here, but it is related to what they're saying, is also illogical. Why? Because there are billions upon billions of worlds in space, so chances are at least one is suitable for life. In fact, I dare say there are worlds inhabited by extraterrestrial life, somewhere out there in the dark beyond. I can't say that for sure, as it hasn't been observed, but if there is nearly an infinite amount of worlds, it stands to reason that more than one planet is suitable for life.
No scientist has claimed that there was nothing that exploded and created something (at least not "nothing" as a layman understands it), as is the straw-man variant of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is theorized to have created the universe, but no one knows what, if anything, preceded it; there could be something, but there could be nothing. If you need to believe a god did it, fine, but know that it is a more or less baseless assumption and it places said god very far away from us.
There's no conclusive evidence that life was created through abiogenesis, even though there's an argument to be made. So if you need to believe a god originally made life, fine, but know that said god is still very far away (and there's still no evidence for it). However, evolution does not allow for a god: evolution is an everlasting process to fine-tune species to their current environment; it works through random mutations and non-random selection that arises naturally from environmental pressures. There's no room for God there.
Theists see the world through the lens of their religion. All they know is that there is a creator, and so they see a need for their creator in all they observe, even though there is no evidence or logical basis for said creator's existence and there are explanations with evidence and logical bases for no creator being needed.
To blindly follow an agenda
The Muslim apologists then say Sam Harris and his followers like to call themselves "bright", but that it's not bright to follow blindly. The Muslim who linked their video to me said I accused religion of standing on a foundation of indoctrination (which I did), when it is people who follow Harris who are indoctrinated. The irony is that the whole idea of religions, like Islam and Christianity, is to follow a totalitarian leader—Allah or God—without questioning; the idea of religion is to follow blindly. That is what indoctrination is all about. Poor children are indoctrinated by their parents, authority figures, culture, and everything around them to believe in the one true faith, which cannot be questioned. Theists who become atheists finally question their faith, and life-long atheists have not been indoctrinated, as there is no one preaching to them about one definite truth.
The apologists say people follow Harris because he has authority. But they follow Allah because Allah has authority. They even say that the only purpose of life is to worship Allah. Furthermore, the reason why Harris has authority is because he can argue logically. He wasn't born with authority. And that's not to mention that he doesn't have ultimate authority; I don't necessarily agree with him on everything. But he does make very compelling arguments, and what must follow is that someone else makes even more compelling arguments about why he's wrong. This is what the two apologists in the YouTube video and many others attempt to do, but they fail miserably.
They say he has an agenda. Clearly, someone who defends their faith has no agenda, though. Right? Everyone has an agenda. Harris definitely has an agenda. It is not to destroy all Muslims, or even Islam itself, but to modernize the religion and bring the Muslim world into the twenty-first century. He is right, because there is a problem with fundamentalist Islam. Of course not all Muslims fall into the category, but extremism occurs so much more in the Muslim world than the secularized world.
I know this sort of thinking may be seen as bad and wrong by theists. Many believe with what seems like absolute certainty that they are right and their god exists and his holy text is the ultimate authority. But to a rational human being who doesn't view religion through a lens, religions that are hundreds of years old will have antiquated and thus dangerous moral values, not to mention that they contradict scientific knowledge. That's why holding holy texts as the infallible word of a flawless god is a bad thing.
The apologists try to paint Harris as a hater who has sermons to his followers. They said lecture first, but then corrected to sermons. Well, he doesn't preach from doctrine; his word is not the absolute truth, and what he says is supposed to be scrutinized and criticized. Furthermore, they say he makes up narratives about Islam that they've never heard of before. They do not give an example of a narrative that would be wrong. This is the fundamental problem with the video: they argue against Harris without stating specifics and thereafter rebutting them with their own arguments. They just say he is wrong and then move on.
They say Harris is trying to force his agenda down people's throats. What he actually does is to argue for his views, using logic and facts. What he says is up for debate; the whole point of his books and lectures is to get people to think, even if they disagree. That is the nature of philosophy, academics, and science. Religion, however, is about one strict truth that derives from pretty much one source—the holy text.
Coming to the next part of the video, the lens through which the Muslim apologists see life is absolutely impressive. They used the classic meaning-of-life argument. They made up a narrative, like Harris does, although Harris does it better, by saying that in this hypothetical scenario, there are no religions. Then they say, "Now, Sam, tell me: what is the purpose of life?"
Silence follows the question, and the one who asked it, rhetorically to the other one, says, "Exactly." They say Islam has a purpose, which is to worship their god, whereas if there is no god, there's no purpose. They say they have a clear belief, while Harris doesn't have that, as if this is proof of theirs. Personally, I find it a very bad purpose to blindly worship a creator. Furthermore, the reason why Allah supposedly made us is so we can worship him, which is to say he had no real purpose for creating us. That's what we humans do; you know: Why science? Because we can. There can never be an absolute, objective purpose, for if we have a purpose in that a god made us for something, then what is the purpose of said god?
What is important here is the lens of religious indoctrination. These poor apologists are certain that there MUST be a purpose of life and therefore their specific god exists. Why must there be an objective purpose? How is purpose a prerequisite for existence? It is, of course, not, but the very idea of there being no higher purpose to life is like poison to the logic organ of a theist. Just to humor them, I will say that purpose, like morals, is not objective; purpose is subjective, because we make our own meaning. My life has purpose because I enjoy living, I make people happy, and I hopefully leave a legacy. Other people will have other purposes, but when you get down to it, the fact that we enjoy living is enough of a purpose.
If purpose actually is a prerequisite for existence, what is God's purpose? Just like God would need a creator that's even more complex than him, he needs a purpose that is even higher than him. And his creator must also have an even more complex creator with an even higher purpose. It continues for all eternity. This is why religion is irrational and illogical.
The Muslim apologists list a variety of reasons why their belief is superior, like that their religious text has a beginning and so there must be a cause, objective morals, and that they have consciousness and a yearning for purpose, none of which can be explained by atheism, according to them. They say this falsifies atheism, as there is more to the world. This is just another nonsense argument.
Both science and religion have a theory about the first cause, science saying it's the Big Bang and Islam and Christianity saying it's God. Neither has a cause for this first cause, and yet theists quickly try to refute the Big Bang by using this argument, while they don't do that for their own first cause. God can somehow be causeless, which is illogical, as I've argued earlier in the blog post. In fact, the Big Bang is not science's final answer, as scientists will keep digging, but apologists don't go further than God.
Objective morals do NOT exist. Our conscience could very well be the result of evolution, as we evolved to become highly social creatures that depend on one another. And there are some logical solutions that are necessary for a society to function, such as not murdering each other and not stealing from one another. If morals were objective, they would remain the same throughout history and would be the same throughout the world, but that is something that cannot be observed. As societies evolve and our understanding increases, our morals change. Even so, intellectual equals will also disagree about what is or isn't moral. We find different values in different parts of the world. And so on. Objective morals simply don't exist. At least not in the rigid capacity that religion proposes, i.e. that they are rigidly absolute and come from a deity. It doesn't matter if it is knowledge or morality; if something is considered unchangeable, it will be problematic for the advancement of humankind. However, perhaps objective, but flexible morals could be said to exist in the form of empathy.
Consciousness and yearning for purpose are harder. Consciousness is electric signals in our neural networks. Animals with more complex brains are, of course, smarter, but also more aware; it can even be shown that a few animals do possess some kind of empathy, if they are social creatures, which gives credibility to the notion that we got our conscience from evolution. An example would be dolphins helping other animals, even humans, escape from danger with no benefit to themselves. But if electric signals is all that constitutes consciousness, I can't say; what I can say is that one cannot assume God did it. Time and time again through history, God of the gaps has been replaced by expanded knowledge. Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic, as Tim Minchin says.
As for yearning for higher purpose, I don't believe humans are programmed to want to worship a deity. It is possible, in the sense that we evolved as social creatures and therefore want to fit in so we can survive. But I have never felt the urge to have a totalitarian god treat me as little more than a slave. What I will concede is that humans do have a yearning to be special, or to have a higher purpose, if you need to phrase it like that. But it's not necessarily about religion; it's just about anything that gives us an identity, includes us in the collective, but also makes us feel like something more than we truly are—animals.
To sum it up, the Muslim apologists argue that atheism is wrong because there is more to the world. They give examples of what supposedly needs a metaphysical explanation. But they never say why there needs to be a metaphysical explanation, when I say what they listed is either irrelevant, conditioned behavior, or explainable through science. It seems to me that theists desperately grasp after purpose, trying to fill the void of no evidence and logic.
The Muslim apologists say that Harris states religion causes harm and is against science. They, of course, disagree, but quickly become hypocrites by saying religions other than Islam have harmed the progress of science. They say it as if Islam, which dominates a more primitive part of the contemporary world, is beneficial to science, while Christianity, which dominates, but has been marginalized in the more civilized parts of the world, has hindered science. They mention ancient scientific progress made in the Muslim world, but I say both religions have hindered science, definitely historically, but demonstrably so today. There's a lot of fringe science (like concluding that women who do not dress modestly cause earthquakes) and denial of science (like evolution).
The apologists try to blame millions of deaths on atheism and say that Islam is harmless—at least in comparison to atheism. They say that Harris's followers are blind to the harm of atheism, which has killed eighteen million people in the last hundred years, while Islam has not even come close to that. The problem with this argument is that atheism has no doctrine or collective beliefs; it is, in fact, the lack of belief, so atheism itself cannot in any conceivable way have been the cause of those deaths. For example, communism does not get its doctrine from atheism, so however many were killed fall under the category of communism. There is no category for atheism, which is merely a disbelief in gods; it's nothing more and nothing less. There are no real variants of atheism, like there are variants of religion; the closest atheism gets to that is the different levels of certainty with which to say there's no god.
When it comes to religion, however, while the religion is not always to blame for horrors committed by believers, very often can a direct link be established between the belief and the acts of terror, like Harris points out many times. People don't blow themselves and many others into pieces because of poor living conditions or hatred of an enemy; the only reason one does that is because of severe indoctrination. This doesn't just include religion, but any ideology that shares the same fundamental dogma. An example would be the notion of honor and the dedication to the emperor of Japan during World War II.
Religion falls into that category, because if one believes with certainty that there is a perfect god, who wants infidels to die, and even offers a reward for killing infidels, of course one is willing to offer up one's life! There is nothing to lose, but everything to gain, not to mention the believer has been conditioned into blindly worshipping God and accepting that God must be worshipped, because he has the moral right to be the dictator. Atheists and theists are all just people, but the difference is that atheists are less inclined to do crazy favors for an imaginary friend.
Throughout the video, the two apologists use foul tactics, like misrepresenting science and Harris's views. In the end, they mention that Harris talks about a nuclear strike on the Muslim world, but what they fail to mention, like Harris has explained, is that the nuclear strike is a very hypothetical argument about doing a first strike, under certain conditions. Harris argues that if an Islamist regime had access to long-range nuclear weapons, it would not work to play chicken like with the Russians during the Cold War. Neither the Americans nor the Russians actually wanted to pull the trigger and be bombed in return, but an Islamist regime that sees it as their mission to kill infidels would gladly die in doing so. Another Cold War would be impossible in such a situation; one side would end up being struck by a nuclear weapon, and if it were the west, they would likely strike back and the net result would simply be a lot of unnecessary death, some of which may have been avoided if a first strike had been ordered.
What one needs to remember is that this is a very hypothetical scenario, not relevant in present time. The morals of a first strike are questionable, because such a devastating attack would kill mostly innocent civilians, like during World War II. The world is unfortunately not black and white; there are no easy answers. What Harris wants is a peaceful transition from fundamentalist Islam to a modernized version of Islam that does not inspire the same kind of violence as it does now. He does not want to kill all Muslims, or any for that matter.
The apologists speak of Harris having a continuous obsession of atheism and science; they say he is conflating how and why. They use the example that one can explain how a car works, but the how says nothing about why the car exists. They say the how and the why are separate, but that Harris conflates them. This is the end note of the video, and another brilliant display of viewing the world through the lens of religion.
They presuppose that there must be a purpose. They presuppose that there must be a why. They presuppose that there must be a creator. Science can explain how humans work, and it can also explain how we came to be, which is the same as the why, except there's no intrinsic purpose. How we came to be—why we exist—is because we are the result of evolution. That's it. There is no prerequisite for our existence, such as a purpose or intelligent designer. It is the lens of religion that says there must be.
Correcting Sam Harris - LDM Show - #TeachSamHarris. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_diSCxNcTmA
Sam Harris and Cenk Uygur Clear the Air on Religious Violence and Islam. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVl3BJoEoAU